What started out as a low-grade spy thriller, complete with furtive clandestine meetings over classified information in the heart of the nation’s capital, has turned into a ponderous tale of legal delays and a debate over whether the government is trying to criminalize free speech.

Former American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) employees Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman were charged in 2005 with passing along to media, colleagues and Israeli officials in the U.S. classified intelligence gleaned from now-convicted former Pentagon Iran analyst Larry Franklin.

The federal case, which is being handled by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, was supposed to go to trial on June 4, but was postponed until the fall, the latest of several delays. Sources close to the case suggest the government has been forced to rethink its strategy after Judge T.S. Ellis ruled in April that the government could not keep much of its evidence against the defendants closed to the public. The judge was not swayed by the government’s concern that classified and sensitive information would reach the public domain.

Ellis said effectively cloaking a substantial portion of the trial would violate the defendants’ and public’s right to an open trial. The ruling was lauded not only by free speech advocates and news organizations, but prominent Jewish groups that had until now, largely held back from weighing in on Rosen or Weissman’s behalf.

“Closing the trial would inappropriately shroud the government’s case in a veil of secrecy,” said David Harris, director of the American Jewish Committee. “We commend Judge Ellis for insisting that the prosecution has an obligation to either expeditiously go forward with this case in a public venue open to all or, after nearly two years, re-evaluate the bases for its charges.”

But Ellis’ ruling also reignited debate over whether the former AIPAC employees are victims of government overreaching and whether they crossed the line between being lobbyists and agents of Israel, particularly at a time of war and during such a sensitive moment in U.S.-Middle East foreign policy.


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