It was surprising enough that the judge quadrupled the prosecution's recommended sentence for Lawrence Franklin, from three years to more than 12.
But the true bombshell at the sentencing on Jan. 20 of the former Pentagon analyst, who is at the center of the case involving pro-Israel lobbyists and classified information, came as lawyers were shutting their briefcases.
That's when U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III told the courtroom in Alexandria, Va., that he believed civilians are just as liable as government employees under laws governing the dissemination of classified information.
"Persons who have unauthorized possession, who come into unauthorized possession of classified information, must abide by the law," Ellis said. "That applies to academics, lawyers, journalists, professors, whatever."
It was difficult to assess whether Ellis was thinking out loud or was pronouncing his judicial philosophy. The judge earned a reputation as a voluble off-the-cuff philosopher when he adjudicated the case of John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban."
But if those are Ellis' jury instructions in April, when two former staffers of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) go on trial, the implications could have major consequences -- not just for Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, but for how Americans consider national security questions.
Franklin, a mid-level Iran analyst at the Pentagon, admitted to leaking information to Rosen and Weissman in 2003 because he wanted his concerns about the Iranian threat to reach the White House.
His Pentagon colleagues were focused on Iraq, and Franklin believed AIPAC could get his theories a hearing at the White House's National Security Council. He also leaked information to Naor Gilon, the former chief political officer at the Israeli Embassy.
By the summer of 2004, government agents co-opted Franklin into setting up Rosen and Weissman. He allegedly leaked classified information to Weissman about purported Iranian plans to kill Israeli and American agents in northern Iraq.
Weissman and Rosen allegedly relayed that information to AIPAC colleagues, the media and Gilon. AIPAC fired the two men in March 2005.
Defense lawyers for Rosen and Weissman have joined a free speech watchdog in casting the case as a major First Amendment battle.
"The implications of this prosecution to news gatherers and others who work in First Amendment cases cannot be overstated," lawyers for the former AIPAC staffers wrote in a brief earlier this month supporting an application from the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press to file an amicus brief.
The case is believed to be the first in U.S. history to apply a World War I-era statute that criminalizes the dissemination of classified information by U.S. civilians.
Franklin pleaded guilty to a similar statute barring government employees from leaking classified information. That statute rarely has been prosecuted; before Franklin, the last successful prosecution experts can recall was in the 1980s.
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