Rice to be subpoenaed in espionage case

(MSNBC) - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and more than a dozen other current and former intelligence officials must testify about their conversations with pro-Israel lobbyists, a federal judge ruled Friday in an espionage case.

Lawyers for two former American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbyists facing charges have subpoenaed Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams and several others to testify at their trial next year. Prosecutors had challenged the subpoenas in federal court.

Lobbyists Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman maintain the Israeli interest group played an unofficial but sanctioned role in crafting foreign policy and that Rice and others can confirm it.

If they ultimately testify in court, the trial in federal court in suburban Alexandria, Va. could offer a behind-the-scenes look at the way U.S. foreign policy is crafted.

Criminal or diplomatic?

The lobbyists are accused of receiving classified information from a now-convicted Pentagon official and relaying it to an Israeli official and the press. The information included details about the al-Qaida terror network, U.S. policy in Iran and the bombing of the Khobar Towers dormitory in Saudi Arabia, federal prosecutors said.

But defense attorneys argued that top U.S. officials regularly used the lobbyists as a go-between as they crafted Middle East policy. If so, attorneys say, how are Rosen and Weissman supposed to know the same behavior that's expected of them on one day is criminal the next?

U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III said the lobbyists have a right to argue that "they believed the meetings charged in the indictment were simply further examples of the government's use of AIPAC as a diplomatic back channel."

Defense attorney Abbe Lowell cheered the ruling.

"For over two years, we have been explaining that our clients' conduct was lawful and completely consistent with how the U.S. government dealt with AIPAC and other foreign policy groups," Lowell said on behalf of both defendants. "We look forward to the trial."

Ellis left open the possibility that the Bush administration may challenge the subpoenas on the grounds they would reveal privileged information. But the judge said his ruling Friday "may trump a valid governmental privilege."

If so, that could force the government to decide whether to allow the testimony or drop the case.

Neither the State Department nor the Justice Department had an immediate comment.

Among those subpoenaed in the case were: former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz; former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; and Marc Grossman, former undersecretary of state for political affairs.

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