…Then They Came for Me

Published January 27, 2006, issue of January 27, 2006.
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The Justice Department’s investigation of two pro-Israel lobbying officials in Washington, shrouded in mystery for much of the past year and a half, is rapidly gaining some clarity as the case moves toward trial. As the fog lifts and the facts of the case become clear, some of the more paranoid conspiracy theories that have been circulating over the months are going to look mighty foolish. On the other hand, the facts might give us some brand-new reasons to be scared.

The investigation became public in August 2004, when CBS News reported that the FBI had a “full-fledged espionage investigation under way.” The probe involved a “suspected mole” in the Pentagon allegedly passing secrets to Israel via officials of the vaunted pro-Israel lobbying organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The CBS report launched a frenzy of chattering among anti-Israel types who decided it was another Pollard case, final proof that Israel and its friends in this country represent a looming security threat.

Over the months, leaks and disclosures from the closely guarded investigation began to paint a very different picture. The “mole” was no agent-in-place, but a loyal (and non-Jewish) Pentagon official alarmed at the course of American policy. Nor was there any “espionage”; the Pentagon aide, Lawrence Franklin, evidently hoped to reach his own higher-ups by sidestepping the chain of command and sharing information with well-connected lobbyists, something that happens every day in Washington. As that picture became clear, it helped fuel a whole new conspiracy theory among pro-Israel activists convinced the entire investigation was driven by a single FBI agent with an anti-Jewish agenda.

But the investigation has continued and broadened in reach, costing the federal government millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours. The one-rogue-agent theory, however plausible to begin with, could not stand up in the face what was clearly a full-court press by the federal government. But what were the feds after?

Control, it seems. As Ori Nir reports on Page 1, the government’s increasingly public actions in the case make it plain that its goal is to deter leakers and tighten its hold on classified information. The plan, legal scholars are increasingly convinced, is to stake out new legal ground and extend government secrecy laws, making private citizens accountable for violations that were previously enforceable only on government employees.

Under American law as it now stands, a government employee can be punished for leaking classified information, but private citizens can’t be sanctioned for receiving it. If private citizens could be punished, it would have an enormous chilling effect on the ability of the press and the public to expose government wrongdoing. And that, it seems, is the point.

That appears to be the reason that the government took the curious tack of pleading out the case of Franklin, the government employee accused of leaking classified information, and using him to bring down the two lobbyists accused of receiving it, former Aipac aides Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman. The administration evidently wants to make their case into a show trial, hoping to make new law out of the ruined lives of two respected public advocates.

The truth, as it comes out, could prove something of a brain-twister — not just to the conspiracy theorists but to hard-core advocates on both sides of our increasingly polarized national debate. Those most opposed to the Bush administration and its security policies tend (with many exceptions) to view Israel and its supporters as part of the problem, a hawkish amen corner pushing for an ever more draconian national security state. It’s going to be hard for some of them to get their minds around the idea that the cause of Israel’s advocates has become their cause. But it has.

Israel’s strongest boosters could have an even tougher time. Pro-Israel organizations and their leaders have been (again, with exceptions) an important source of backing for President Bush as he’s developed his war on terror into an all-encompassing philosophy of government. As the building blocks of his strategy have emerged — the Patriot Act, the detentions of foreigners and citizens without trial or due process, the systematic abuse of detainees, the domestic wiretaps without warrant — the onetime champions of civil rights have either applauded or stood mute. Few of them ever imagined that the apparatus would one day be turned against their own cause and its advocates.

But that’s what happened. As the saying goes, first they came for the enemy combatants…

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