FBI is accused of `trickery' in spy case

Lawyers for ex-lobbyists seek dismissal of charges

April 22, 2006|By NICK MADIGAN | NICK MADIGAN,SUN REPORTER

Citing what they said was "outrageous" conduct by the FBI, lawyers representing two former lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee urged a federal judge yesterday to dismiss spying charges against the defendants, who are due to stand trial next month.

Attorneys for Steve J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, who stand accused of discussing U.S. government secrets about Iran as part of their work for the lobby, said FBI agents acted improperly in their investigation of the case.

In particular, they said agents "engaged in a shocking degree of trickery" in their attempt to gain consent from the family of the late investigative reporter Jack Anderson for a search of the voluminous archives he left behind when he died in December.

Rosen and Weissman are to stand trial May 23, but the case could be derailed by a demand by the trial judge, T.S. Ellis of the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., that the Justice Department explain why the two men are being charged under the 1917 Espionage Act for conversational exchanges of information that should ordinarily be protected by the First Amendment.

The hiccup in the case comes just as the Bush administration is under increasing scrutiny for what civil libertarians believe is a heavy-handed obsession with secrecy. Bowing to criticism, the National Archives recently put a stop to a covert arrangement under which the CIA reclassified thousands of documents that had been made public years ago.

In their motion yesterday, attorneys John N. Nassikas III and Erica E. Paulson said FBI agents contacted Anderson's relatives after his death and "demanded access to the materials" in his files "as part of an investigation of Dr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman."

The agents called on Anderson's widow, Olivia, 78, at her home in Bethesda and, while her daughter Tanya was briefly out of the room, "obtained Mrs. Anderson's signature on a consent form to search the files."

"The agents hid the form from view and did not tell Mrs. Anderson's child what they had done in her absence," the motion said. "The agents then left the meeting."

While the FBI has yet to gain access to the approximately 200 boxes containing Anderson's files - they are in an undisclosed location, known only to their custodians at George Washington University - Anderson's associates assert that his widow was not aware she was giving consent to search them and that she had been tricked into doing so.

Using the signed form, the FBI agents then approached Mark Feldstein, director of the journalism program at George Washington University, for help in accessing the documents, saying they had the family's permission to see them. He balked.

"Professor Feldstein contacted the Anderson family thereafter and learned that the family was entirely unaware of the `consent' form," the lawyers' motion said.

Feldstein, in a phone conversation yesterday, confirmed the account in the motion. He said that in a visit last month to his house, the agents "flashed their badges" and spoke darkly of "violations of the Espionage Act," although they later acknowledged, he said, that they were after material related to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee regardless of whether it was classified.

They also said they wanted to see what else of interest the files might contain, no matter the subject. To Feldstein, it smacked of a "fishing expedition," he said, especially given that Anderson stopped writing his column long before the lobby became an issue.

"I told the agents that the only thing in the files that looked sensitive was Anderson's own FBI file, which was, ironically, heavily redacted," said Feldstein, a former reporting intern for Anderson and later an investigative television reporter. He is writing a book on the columnist's heyday titled Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture.

Anderson's syndicated column, Washington Merry-Go-Round, specialized for "muckraking" journalism.

He was known for exposing corruption and nefariousness in Washington, and was in the cross hairs of the Nixon White House during the Watergate years.

Nick.Madigan@baltsun.com

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