ESPIONAGE AND THE PRESS….Here’s some encouraging news. Remember Lawrence Franklin, the Pentagon analyst who was charged with passing classified information to a couple of lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee? He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison back in January.

Fine. But what about the lobbyists who received the information? Well, they’ve been charged under the 1917 Espionage Act and are currently on trial ? something that seems unexceptional at first glance since they are, after all, AIPAC lobbyists and therefore working on behalf of a foreign interest.

But it’s not that simple. If they were being prosecuted for harming U.S. interests by passing information to the Israeli embassy ? which they did ? that would be one thing. However, instead of prosecuting that case, the government is deliberately trying to build a much broader case: namely that the lobbyists had lunch with a source who passed along classified scuttlebutt and then divulged that information “to persons not entitled to receive it.” But if AIPAC lobbyists can be convicted of espionage merely for receiving confidential information and then passing it along to anyone not authorized to hear it, can journalists be convicted too?

Last week, T.S. Ellis III, the conservative Reagan-era judge in the case, suggested this was a slippery slope he was uncomfortable with:

At a hearing in federal court last week, Ellis said that the charges brought under the 1917 law were unprecedented and that the government had veered into “uncharted waters.”

“My initial thought was maybe that, since this statute has been around for so long, that this would be a case that would be governed by well-established precedent,” the judge said. “I don’t think it is.”

…. “I regard this [1st Amendment issue] as central to this case and important,” Ellis declared.

My own view is that the government has chosen this case very shrewdly. The two lobbyists work for AIPAC, which gives this case the veneer of being about foreign spying. President Bush is a solid supporter of Israel, which means the administration can’t be accused of going after its political enemies. AIPAC itself fired the two lobbyists and is reluctant to publicly defend them for obvious reasons. And of course anyone who’s unsympathetic toward Israel in the first place is happy to see this case move forward.

In other words, there’s really no one to defend these guys. But once the precedent is set that you’re guilty of espionage merely for receiving confidential information over lunch and then reporting it to someone else, every national security reporter in the country is in danger of prosecution. Judge Ellis seems to understand this.

As should we all. Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman obviously aren’t poster children for press freedom, but that shouldn’t stop us from seeing what the administration is trying to accomplish here. Remember, they think we’re in a permanent state of war, and they’re looking for weapons to shut down leaks of all kinds. AIPAC may seem like a safe initial target, but if Rosen and Weissman are successfully convicted, how long will it be before James Risen and Dana Priest are in the dock too?

We’re being suckered here, folks. Don’t fall for it.

UPDATE: I’ve rewritten the third paragaph of this post to make the issue at stake clearer.