IN THE DARK….Larry Franklin, a former Department of Defense analyst, recently pleaded guilty to leaking classified information and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. That’s a stiff sentence ? and an unusual one ? but since Franklin worked for the Pentagon at the time of the leak it’s at least easy to understand.

What’s harder to understand is the case against Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, the two former AIPAC lobbyists who received Franklin’s leaks. It’s true that they passed along some of the information they received to the Israeli embassy, but the government is deliberately not including that as part of the charges against them. Here is Fred Kaplan on the case against Rosen and Weissman:

Neither works for the U.S. government. Neither has a security clearance. (Rosen, a former official, used to have one, but it expired 20 years ago; the prosecutors claim that its terms are still in effect.) If Rosen and Weissman were accused of being Israeli spies, or if either they or AIPAC were labeled foreign agents, that would be one thing. But the indictment makes no such accusation….They’re charged with giving classified information not to foreign governments or spies but rather “to persons not entitled to receive it.”

This is what journalists do routinely every day. They receive information from insiders, write it up in a story, send it to editors, who publish it in newspapers, magazines, wire services, or on Web sites, all of which are seen by readers who have not been officially authorized to view that classified material.

….If [Rosen and Weissman] are convicted under this legal theory, the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus or The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh could be next.

Is Kaplan overreacting? Maybe not. Here is Walter Pincus himself in the Washington Post today:

A lawyer familiar with the AIPAC case said administration officials “want this case as a precedent so they can have it in their arsenal” and added: “This as a weapon that can be turned against the media.”

What’s more, the same story reports that Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, is considering legislation that would make it easier to prosecute leaks ? legislation that even John Ashcroft thought went too far. If Roberts is serious, the press could be in real trouble when it reports on things like the CIA’s secret prisons or the NSA’s domestic spying program.

For a more detailed look at the Franklin case and its implications for reporters who print leaked information, check out this piece by Eli Lake in the New Republic last year. As he says, “At a time when a growing amount of information is being classified, the prosecution of Rosen and Weissman threatens to have a chilling effect ? not on the ability of foreign agents to influence U.S. policy, but on the ability of the American public to understand it.” Amen.