No matter what you might think of the policies AIPAC espouses, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Washington Post’s news that the government will be dropping espionage charges against two former officials of the organization is very good news for journalism and government transparency.

Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, private U.S. citizens both, were charged with receiving classified information from government officials, and then relaying that information to others. If a court had found those actions to be a convictable crime, it’s easy to see how the same standard would hem in journalists who we expect to do the same thing as an everyday part of their job, especially reporters who traffic in sensitive information on thier foreign policy, intelligence, law enforcement, and homeland security beats. As the last eight years have shown, these are areas deserving greater, not less, press scrutiny.

Eli Lake wrote an excellent piece explaining the now dead case’s danger to journalism for The New Republic in 2005. Some key excerpts, cribbed from Lexis-Nexis:

Far from alleging the two AIPAC officials were foreign agents, U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty is contending that the lobbyists are legally no different than the government officials they lobbied, holding Rosen and Weissman to the same rules for protecting secrets as Franklin or any other bureaucrat with a security clearance…

But, if it’s illegal for Rosen and Weissman to seek and receive “classified information,” then many investigative journalists are also criminals—not to mention former government officials who write for scholarly journals or the scores of men and women who petition the federal government on defense and foreign policy. In fact, the leaking of classified information is routine in Washington, where such data is traded as a kind of currency. And, while most administrations have tried to crack down on leaks, they have almost always shied away from going after those who receive them—until now. 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.

Alas, Lake’s full piece is now lost to the magazine’s frustratingly clunky digital archives. (If they dig it out, I’ll update this post with a link.) In its stead, here’s an On The Media interview with Lake on the case. VERY LATE UPDATE: Here’s a working link to Lake’s 2005 article.

Addendum: Steven Aftergood’s Secrecy News gives credit to JTA’s Ron Kampeas for breaking the news, and to, yes, Eli Lake for getting the first on the record confirmation in The Washington Times.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.