No matter where you come down on the Middle East conflict and the US relationship with Israel, the Bush government's basis for its trial against two former AIPAC staff members has huge import for anyone concerned about open government, a free press, academic freedom, and the tradition of lobbying the government (which, in and of itself, is a good one).
AIPAC is known as the Israel lobby and, as you may know, two of its staff have been charged by the government for receiving and disseminating classified information, and the Defense Department official who gave them the information has plea bargained his case.
But the primary basis for the government's case against the two AIPAC staffers rests on, according to the Washington Post in an editorial on March 23, "an old and vaguely worded law that prohibits people in possession of such information from disclosing it further."
The Post continues:
The reach of this law, which dates from the World War I era, has never been clear. By its terms, it would seem to require every person to protect the government's secrets -- a principle hardly in keeping with the American system of robust public debate. While it is reasonable for the government to demand that its employees and contractors protect the information it entrusts to them, it's not okay to criminalize discussions among people who do not work, directly or indirectly, for the government.
Like the Washington Post, I do not defend the alleged actions of the AIPAC staffers who the government has accused of knowingly receiving classified information from Franklin and passing it on to the Israeli embassy. But the government is not trying to prove spying charges in this case. "Instead, prosecutors have proceeded under a legal theory that must alarm anyone who values open debate."
I guess what it comes down to is whether the government can unilaterally create an Official Secrets Act like the Brits have, and bypass Congress. I believe they should not be allowed to do so. As a writer and blogger, among other things, I recognize what an enormously chilling effect this would have on any conversation between government officials and private citizens. Wouldn't this also effectively dissuade many government whistleblowers who possess any kind of classified information from talking about wrongdoing at all to anyone? And given the inclinations of this government to classify far more documents than it predecessors did, it makes it even more difficult to imagine the free exchange of ideas between government officials and journalists.
I find it particularly ironic that this government is bringing this charge in court while it is sending messages to Congress like this one:
Message to the Congress of the United States on Information Sharing
December 16, 2005
TO THE CONGRESS OF THE UNITED STATES:
"The robust and effective sharing of terrorism information is vital to protecting Americans and the Homeland from terrorist attacks. To ensure that we succeed in this mission, my Administration is working to implement the Information Sharing Environment (ISE) called for by section 1016 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA). The ISE is intended to enable the Federal Government and our State, local, tribal, and private sector partners to share appropriate information relating to terrorists, their threats, plans, networks, supporters, and capabilities while, at the same time, respecting the information privacy and other legal rights of all Americans."
What "tribal" leaders, what "private sector partners" are going to have access to the "plans, networks, supporters and capabilities" of terrorists? How can the White House announce that it will share this kind of information, much of which must be classified, with private citizens and yet, at the same time, bring prosecution against people for merely "receiving" such classified information?"
Among the many organizations that are seriously concerned with the government's attempt to limit discourse and dialogue, the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News has spoken clearly on this issue:
As for Secrecy News' interest in the case, it stems from the fact thatwe also gather and disseminate "national defense information," a term that encompasses both classified and unclassified defense information. We have "unauthorized" conversations with government officials. Sometimes we deliberately pose questions about matters that we knowto be classified ("Psst...How big was the total intelligence budget 50 years ago?"). If the government's unbounded new interpretation of the espionage statutes were to prevail, much of our research and publication activity could arguably be considered illegal.
For the sake of full disclosure, I worked for AIPAC in the 1970s. I was hired by the founder of AIPAC, Si Kenen, and I spent a significant amount of time talking to people inside and outside the government, as well as with foreign governments. Our stock in trade was "information."
Had this kind of government pall existed then, no one would have talked to anyone. Journalists, academicians, lobbyists, whistleblowers -- all would have effectively been muzzled if what the Bush government is trying to do now was in place back then.