updated 5/1/2009 5:39:43 PM ET 2009-05-01T21:39:43

Prosecutors moved Friday to dismiss all charges against two former pro-Israel lobbyists accused of disclosing U.S. defense secrets, ending a four-year legal battle that promised to put former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other Bush administration insiders on the witness stand. 

Critics of the prosecution of Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee accused the government of trying to criminalize the sort of back-channel discussions between government officials, lobbyists and reporters that are commonplace in Washington.

To prove the point, Rosen and Weissman's lawyers won the right to subpoena a parade of officials from former President George W. Bush's administration and have them testify at trial under oath. Those slated to testify included Rice, former national security adviser Stephen Hadley, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and several others.

Rosen's defense attorney, Abbe Lowell, said each of those administration officials had conversations with Rosen and Weissman and disclosed almost exactly the same type of information that led to the prosecution of Rosen and Weissman.

Prosecutors had sought unsuccessfully to quash those subpoenas, arguing that Rice and the others had nothing relevant to add to the case.

In a statement Friday, Acting U.S. Attorney Dana Boente said the government moved to dismiss the charges after concluding that pretrial rulings would make it too difficult for the government to prove its case.

Boente also said he was worried that classified information would be disclosed at trial.

U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III had made several rulings — upheld by appellate courts earlier this year — that prosecutors worried would make it almost impossible to obtain a guilty verdict. Among them was a requirement that the government would have to prove that Rosen and Weissman knew they were harming the United States by trading sensitive national defense information with U.S. government officials, reporters and an Israeli diplomat.

The defense had also been prepared to put on a strong case that the information obtained by Rosen and Weissman, while technically classified, was not truly secret and that its disclosure was irrelevant to the nation's security.

The federal government's former arbiter of classification, J. William Leonard, was prepared to testify for the defense that the government overuses classification and applies the label to information that by any practical measure does not need to be secret. The government had sought to bar Leonard's testimony.

The trial had been scheduled to start June 2 in a case first brought in 2005.

A rarely used law
Rosen and Weissman had not been charged with actual espionage, although the charges did fall under provisions of the 1917 Espionage Act, a rarely used World War I-era law that had never before been applied to lobbyists.

Weissman's lawyer, Baruch Weiss, called the dismissal a "huge victory for the First Amendment" to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees free speech rights. Had Rosen and Weissman been convicted, he said it would have set a precedent for prosecuting reporters any time they obtained information from government officials that was later deemed too sensitive to be disclosed.

Weiss said the four-year prosecution "has been a tremendous hardship for both Rosen and Weissman," who have been unable to work.

A former Defense Department official, Lawrence A. Franklin, previously pleaded guilty to providing Rosen and Weissman classified defense information and was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison.

AIPAC spokesman Patrick Dorton said the organization is "pleased that the Justice Department has dismissed the charges. This is a great day for Steve Rosen, Keith Weissman and their families."

AIPAC fired Rosen and Weissman in April 2005, when they were under investigation but had not yet been charged. Dorton declined to comment on whether AIPAC still thinks Rosen and Weissman acted improperly.

The government's decision won praise from the American Jewish Committee.

"The Department of Justice has now reaffirmed that the law of the United States protects citizens who engage in the everyday and essential work of political advocacy," said AJC Executive Director David Harris.

More on: AIPAC

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