Charges Dropped, Questions Linger

By Nathan Guttman

Published May 06, 2009, issue of May 15, 2009.
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The dismissal of all charges against two former pro-Israel lobbyists who had been accused of passing along state secrets has sent the Jewish community searching for answers, both internally and externally.

Jewish communal leaders have been inquiring about the prosecution’s motivation, and whether pro-Israel activists were targeted for their views.

But supporters of former defendants Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman are also asking why the Jewish community remained mostly silent during the nearly five years of the former lobbyists’ legal ordeal.

“Overall, with a few notable exceptions, the Jewish community was not supportive in terms of public statements and in terms of protesting the prosecution,” said Baruch Weiss, Weissman’s attorney. “There needs to be some very serious examination of the Jewish community.”

This turning of a cold shoulder to the former top lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee ended abruptly May 1, with the issuance of support statements shortly after the government’s dismissal of the charges. The pair had been charged under the 1917 Espionage Act that makes it a crime for civilians to receive and distribute closely held American defense information. They had been accused of receiving classified information from a former Pentagon analyst and relaying it to other AIPAC officials and an Israeli diplomat.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which had stood almost alone in criticizing the government for its decision to prosecute the pair, issued a statement welcoming the decision.

“We hope this will put an end to the spurious charges that have been made and the exploitation by some who sought to use this to advance baseless accusations and charges against those who support Israel,” the group said.

The American Jewish Committee called the decision to abandon the case “a victory for justice and free speech,” and the Anti-Defamation League said the case “should never have been brought before the courts.” The ADL added that the case endangered First Amendment protections.

Both groups took on the issue only late in the course of the prosecution. They had recently sent separate letters to the Justice Department, calling for reconsideration of the case.

Another group active on civil rights, The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, came out publicly on the issue only after hearing of the dismissal. Rabbi David Saperstein, the group’s director, said that the case “raised grave concerns that a serious injustice and abuse of power was involved.” Saperstein later told the Forward that every organization faced “serious constraints” on speaking out on the issue, because the facts are not available. “We didn’t have enough answers to take a public position,” he said.

A senior Jewish official in Washington, however, said that even though the pair did not receive much public support from the organized Jewish community, their issue was raised privately by Jewish activists with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and administration officials.

This explanation did not seem to satisfy the legal team representing the duo. In a joint press call, lawyers for Rosen and Weissman were critical of the community’s silence and the role played by their clients’ former employer. “We hope that with the case being dismissed, AIPAC and the community in which our clients were very active will look back and ask if our clients got a fair shake,” said Abbe Lowell, Rosen’s attorney.

Defense sources speculated that the community’s silence stemmed from AIPAC’s decision to fire Rosen and Weissman in April 2005, a step seen in the community as expressing mistrust in the pair. They also criticized community leaders for not stepping forward to fund legal expenses.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, admits that “we probably should have done more” for Rosen and Weissman, but he said the community remained largely on the sidelines “out of respect for AIPAC.” Foxman explained that the Jewish community initially waited for AIPAC to take a stand and that it later remained on the sidelines after the lobby decided to fire the two staffers. He added that he now expected the AIPAC leadership to reflect on its treatment of the former employees.

AIPAC fired Rosen and Weissman, arguing that their conduct was beneath the organization’s standards. A motion filed later by the defense team claimed that AIPAC’s decision resulted from talks between the lobby and the FBI, in which the lobby was assured it would be left out of the case in exchange for cutting ties with the two defendants. Nathan Lewin, the lawyer who represented AIPAC at the time said in a May 1 interview that “it was the right decision at the time.” Lewin denied there was any deal with the government. “We told the government from the outset that [the prosecution] was ill-advised and erroneous, but they decided to go forward anyway,” he said.

Rosen, 66, has filed a civil lawsuit against his former bosses, alleging libel and slander.

He told the Forward he expected the lobby to settle the issue of compensation even before his lawsuit is heard. “I was put in financial peril after years of exemplary work,” he said. “I am not out for revenge or to hurt the organization; I’m just concerned for my survival and the survival of my family.”

Nathan Guttman can be contacted at guttman@forward.com.


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