WASHINGTON — The Justice Department asked a judge Friday to drop espionage-related charges against two pro-Israel lobbyists, a move expected to end a politically sensitive case that focused on whether U.S. secrets had been leaked.
Prosecutors said recent court decisions would have made the case hard to win and forced disclosure of large amounts of classified information. But defense lawyers and some legal experts said the government was wrong in the first place for trying to criminalize the kind of information horse-trading that long has occurred in Washington.
The intrigue surrounding the case against the two former lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee already was chock-full of references to top-secret intelligence matters and Middle East politics. But it intensified in recent weeks with reports that Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), a staunch supporter of AIPAC, had been caught on federal wiretaps in 2005 offering to aid the two lobbyists in exchange for help in obtaining a coveted House committee chairmanship.
The dismissal, which is all but certain to be approved by a federal judge, probably will end the five-year legal battle between the government and the two lobbyists, Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman.
It was the second major federal case dropped by Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. since he took over in January. Last month, the government dropped its prosecution of former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and voided his conviction, citing misconduct by federal attorneys.
During the Bush administration, the Justice Department had accused Rosen and Weissman of obtaining classified information from the U.S. government and then disclosing it to reporters, think tank personnel and the Israeli government in a way that could either harm national security or aid a foreign country.
The two men, who had left their jobs at AIPAC before being charged in 2005, were never accused of espionage and have maintained that they did nothing wrong.
After several delays, their trial had been set for June 2 in Alexandria, Va., where the Justice Department filed the dismissal motions Friday.
A third defendant in the case, former Pentagon official Lawrence A. Franklin, pleaded guilty to giving classified defense information to Rosen and Weissman and was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison.
According to the indictment, Rosen and Weissman conspired to obtain and then disseminate classified information on sensitive issues such as U.S. policy toward Iran, the status of U.S. counter-terrorism investigations in the Middle East and current intelligence on Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks.
After the arrests, Harman was recorded by court-approved wiretaps being used to investigate suspected Israeli intelligence-gathering in the United States. According to some reports, Harman, who was not the object of the wiretap, was said to have promised an Israeli operative that she would lobby officials for leniency for Rosen and Weissman.
Harman denied wrongdoing and demanded the release of transcripts of any wiretapped conversation in which she participated.
Then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss wanted to inform Congress about Harman's wiretap in accordance with a long-standing policy governing sensitive intelligence investigations, but was asked by then-Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales not to, according to a former senior intelligence official who spoke of internal discussions on condition of anonymity.
The prosecution of Rosen and Weissman continued without interference, several current and former federal law enforcement officials said.
The government's case began to falter in recent months, however, when lawyers for Rosen and Weissman won several key procedural rulings. The lobbyists won the right to subpoena as defense witnesses a number of former top Bush administration officials, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Defense lawyers Abbe Lowell and Baruch Weiss said their clients had met frequently with those officials. As witnesses, the officials would help prove that the Bush administration, like prior administrations, routinely discussed sensitive information with AIPAC as part of a sanctioned, back-channel relationship between the United States and Israel.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III also issued legal rulings that set a high bar for the prosecutors, including a requirement to prove that Rosen and Weissman knowingly meant to harm the United States or aid another country.
U.S. Atty. Dana J. Boente, the acting top federal prosecutor in the region, said the government was moving to dismiss the charges because of the additional legal burdens.
"When this indictment was brought, the government believed it could prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt based on the statute," Boente said, adding that there was a "diminished likelihood" the government could win now.
Lowell and another defense lawyer, John Nassikas III, praised the Obama administration for reviewing the case and denounced the previous administration's actions dating to the first FBI search at AIPAC's offices in 2004.
Rosen and Weissman may sue the government to recover legal costs, which are estimated at more than $10 million.
Many current and former federal law enforcement officials said the prosecution's case was strong and that there was proof the two lobbyists knew their actions were wrong.
"The judge had made so many adverse rulings that this was inevitable, but it grates on me," one former senior Justice Department official said of the decision to drop the case.