The AIPAC Case: Aiding and Abetting Leaks

03.06.06 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The most troubling aspect of the prosecution of two former employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for mishandling classified information is that prosecutors have adopted an expansive new interpretation of the Espionage Act which could make criminals of many reporters, lobbyists and advocates who traffic in government information that may be classified.

But another worrisome feature of the case is that one of the AIPAC defendants is charged under a separate statute — 18 U.S.C. § 2 — with “aiding and abetting” an unauthorized disclosure of information.

(18 U.S.C. § 2 states that “Whoever commits an offense against the United States or aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures its commission, is punishable as a principal.”)

The use of this “aiding and abetting” statute multiplies the impact of the government’s new theory of the Espionage Act since it means that anyone who facilitates or encourages the disclosure of proscribed information — as reporters and many others do in the course of their daily activities — is as culpable as the one who discloses classified information without authorization.

“It’s called being an ‘accessory before the fact’,” observed former CIA analyst Allen Thomson, who flagged the use of this provision in the AIPAC prosecution. He cited a law dictionary definition which explained that “an accessory before the fact is one whose counsel or instigation leads another to commit a crime.”

Punishing the solicitation or acquisition of restricted information could obviously be an effective way to discourage press attention to matters that the government wishes to conceal.

On the other hand, Mr. Thomson conjectured, the government’s “use of 18 USC § 2 against [AIPAC defendant Steven J.] Rosen … might provide reporters with a Fifth Amendment basis for refusing to talk to grand juries” since they could run the risk of self-incrimination. Any such Fifth Amendment claim could be defeated by a grant of immunity, however.

See, relatedly, “Pro-Israel Lobbying Group Roiled by Prosecution of Two Ex-Officials” by Scott Shane and David Johnston, New York Times, March 5.