AIPAC Gets Down and Dirty in Pushback vs. Defamation Suit

At War: Steve Rosen (left), the former policy director at AIPAC, is embroiled in a bitter legal fight with the pro-Israel lobbying group. Recent AIPAC filings in the case have taken a salacious turn.
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At War: Steve Rosen (left), the former policy director at AIPAC, is embroiled in a bitter legal fight with the pro-Israel lobbying group. Recent AIPAC filings in the case have taken a salacious turn.

By Nathan Guttman

Published November 16, 2010, issue of November 26, 2010.
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The espionage case against two senior officials of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington was dropped last year. But it has not been forgotten, and it’s now threatening to draw the lobby into new depths of mudslinging.

Papers filed in the civil lawsuit of former lobbyist Steve Rosen against his previous employers at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee include mutual accusations of using pornographic material at the lobby headquarters, among other allegations. The papers, based on depositions taken from Rosen and from AIPAC principals, dig into the private lives of the involved parties. They also reveal in detail the close ties AIPAC officials held with Israeli diplomats based in Washington.

“After reading this stuff, you feel like you need to wash your hands,” one pro-Israel activist said after skimming through the 260-page document, which is laced with graphic descriptions and invasive personal details.

At issue is Rosen’s $20 million defamation lawsuit against his previous employers at AIPAC, who fired him and his colleague Keith Weissman in 2005 — several months after both had been indicted under a rarely used espionage statute because they allegedly received and passed on classified information. AIPAC, in a move that could be seen as meant to embarrass Rosen, revealed in its court filings extensive parts of the depositions, many of them dealing directly with Rosen’s personal life.

In an interview with the Forward after the court documents had been made public, Rosen said he was not deterred, and promised that when he files his own motion in December, the information in it will put AIPAC in the hot seat. “Any embarrassment I suffered as a result of what they filed will be insignificant compared to the embarrassment they’ll suffer after we file our motion,” Rosen said.

Rosen’s civil lawsuit seeks compensation and damages from AIPAC and from its outside public relations adviser, Patrick Dorton, for defamation. Rosen said he suffered severe damage to his reputation when Dorton issued a statement on AIPAC’s behalf announcing that he and Weissman were fired because their actions did not comport with AIPAC standards. This statement was initially understood as being related to the allegations of Rosen receiving classified information and communicating it to others against AIPAC’s policy. But in its motion for summary judgment, filed November 5 with the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, AIPAC cites a wider array of alleged points of misconduct that the pro-Israel lobby now says led to the decision to terminate him.

AIPAC claims that Rosen, who was director of foreign policy issues at the lobby and one of its most senior and well-known employees, had engaged in viewing pornography on AIPAC computers at the lobby’s Washington offices. Partial transcripts of the lengthy videotaped deposition of Rosen, which were made public as part of AIPAC’s motion, show Rosen admitted to surfing pornographic websites from work. But AIPAC’s lawyers insisted on more details:

Q: What type of pornography?

A: Sexual pornography.

Q: What type? Man on man, man on woman?

A: Anything. Anything that occurred to me.

Rosen also added more details than, perhaps, the attorney for AIPAC had bargained for.

“I witnessed [AIPAC executive director] Howard Kohr viewing pornographic material, [Kohr’s secretary] Annette Franzen viewing pornographic material, probably a dozen other members of the staff,” Rosen said in his deposition. He added that, according to a Nielsen survey, more than a quarter of Americans regularly view pornographic websites at their workplace.

Later in his deposition, the former lobbyist also said he had heard from directors at AIPAC about their visits to prostitutes and he claimed Kohr had routinely used “locker room language” at the AIPAC offices.

AIPAC did not seem deterred from getting dragged into a dirty debate. It also chose to include in its court filing an issue relating to Rosen’s personal life with only a vague connection to the lobby’s claim regarding Rosen’s actions being below AIPAC’s standards. AIPAC’s lawyers questioned Rosen in detail about his attempts to find male sexual companions through the online classifieds site Craigslist, an act Rosen referred to as “sexual experimentations.” This information came up in one of Rosen’s divorce cases — he has been married five times — and was supposed to remain under court seal.

The court documents also shed light on Rosen’s attempts to support himself and his family after being fired from AIPAC. The former lobbyist, as the depositions indicate, received cash gifts from several prominent Jewish philanthropists, among them some who are also major donors to AIPAC. The list includes Hollywood mogul Haim Saban, one of AIPAC’s key funders, who gave Rosen a total of $100,000; Daniel Abraham, founder of the Center for Middle East Peace, who gave Rosen, his wife and three children gifts of $5,000 to $10,000; and philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, who paid off a college loan for Rosen’s daughter. The list includes several other backers, including two described as “bundlers” who raised up to $200,000 for Rosen from other donors.

The rationale for introducing this issue is AIPAC’s claim that Rosen did not suffer any financial difficulty following his dismissal or due to Dorton’s claim in AIPAC’s public statement regarding Rosen’s supposed misconduct. Rosen believes that by supporting him these donors, many of them still active AIPAC members, demonstrated their displeasure with the manner in which the lobby treated its two former employees.

The personal and financial details that take up much of the deposition seemed to be tense at times, with flare ups between the attorneys of both sides. But the court papers also shed light on the events surrounding the FBI visit to Rosen’s home on August 27, 2004 that led to the indictment in the espionage case.

The FBI has alleged that Larry Franklin, a Pentagon analyst at the time, passed on national security information to Weissman, who in turn shared it with Rosen. The two former defendants did not know then that Franklin was cooperating with the FBI and that the information he provided them was part of a sting operation.

Rosen and Weissman learned from Franklin that Iranian forces were allegedly operating in northern Iraq and that they were plotting to kidnap Israeli operatives. They then disclosed this information to a senior Israeli diplomat, Naor Gilon, and to Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler. The depositions reveal that after being confronted by the FBI at his home, in what he described as a “very intense exchange of words” Rosen made a phone call to AIPAC’s legal counsel, who was shaken by the news and asked Rosen to come immediately to the lobby’s headquarters.

Rosen then called Rafi Barak, at the time the deputy chief of mission at Israel’s Washington embassy. Rosen convinced Barak to cancel other appointments and meet immediately at a coffee shop. He described to the Israeli diplomat the encounter he had just had with the FBI and the allegations they made about Israelis receiving classified information. “I probably made some reference to Pollard,” Rosen recalled, and Barak, according to the deposition, “got very upset too.”

AIPAC raises this episode in an attempt to prove that Rosen did not follow directly the instructions of the lobby’s lawyer to come immediately to the office. This could demonstrate how Rosen did not live up to AIPAC’s standards.

But former AIPAC staffer and now liberal columnist M.J. Rosenberg sees more to it. According to Rosenberg, if Rosen proves that his operations, including going to a foreign official to warn him about the investigation, were all part of AIPAC’s standard operating procedures, “that would mean that AIPAC is not a domestic lobbying organization at all, but something very, very different.”

In a statement released by AIPAC from Dorton, the lobbying group said, “As is demonstrated in detail in the pleadings that AIPAC has filed, this is a frivolous lawsuit with no merit. … Rosen’s claims are wildly inaccurate, are undermined by Rosen’s own admissions under oath in his deposition, and constitute a blatant attempt to detract attention from the true and relevant facts.”

The next round in this battle is expected with Rosen’s counter filing on December 2. Both sides can decide to settle the case outside the court before that, or at any phase before it reaches a jury trial.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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