Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other senior intelligence officials should not be forced to testify about whether they discussed classified information with pro-Israel lobbyists, federal prosecutors argued in a closed-door court hearing Thursday.
Two former American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbyists facing espionage charges have subpoenaed Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams and several others to testify at their trial next year.
If their testimony is allowed by U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, the trial could offer a behind-the-scenes look at the way U.S. foreign policy is crafted.
Although Ellis closed Thursday's hearing to the public, the government's opposition to the subpoenas was outlined on a court calendar entry.
Attorneys for lobbyists Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman have argued that the Israeli interest group played an unofficial but sanctioned role in crafting foreign policy and that Rice and others can confirm it.
"In other words, they'll tell us that back-channel disclosures are an everyday common practice?" Ellis asked in a hearing last year during a rare public discussion of the issue.
That argument is a key to the defense.
The lobbyists are accused of receiving classified information from a now-convicted Pentagon official and relaying it to an Israeli official and the press. The information included details about the al-Qaida terror network, U.S. police in Iran and the bombing of the Khobar Towers dormitory in Saudi Arabia, federal prosecutors said.
But defense attorneys suggested that top U.S. officials regularly used the lobbyists as a go-between as they crafted Middle East policy. If so, attorneys say, how are Rosen and Weissman supposed to know the same behavior that's expected of them on one day is criminal the next?
Federal prosecutors have said little in public about why Rice and others should not have to testify. Rice, who previously served as President Bush's national security adviser, "never gave national defense information to Mr. Rosen, doesn't even remember him," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin DiGregory.
The list of Bush administration figures subpoenaed in the case include: Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; Iraq adviser David Satterfield; William Burns, U.S. ambassador to Russia; and retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni. The list also includes Kenneth Pollack, who served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.
Ellis closed the courtroom Thursday because it involved classified information. Court security officers barred a reporter from the hallway near the courtroom.
The judge was not expected to rule Thursday and, when he does, his reasoning may not be made public. Trial is set for Jan. 14.
A former Defense Department official, Lawrence A. Franklin, already has pleaded guilty to providing Rosen and Weissman with classified defense information. Franklin was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison.