Knowing What We Don’t Know

By Leonard Fein

Published February 10, 2006, issue of February 10, 2006.
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Here’s a puzzle, a small piece of a much larger set of nagging issues that bubbles just beneath the surface of our ordinary lives: On December 23, 2005, Lawrence Kaplan, a senior editor of The New Republic, asserted in The Wall Street Journal that “Israeli officials were lukewarm about the war [in Iraq] from the outset, being far more concerned with the threat from Iran.”

Yet now we have a book by James Risen, national security correspondent for The New York Times, titled “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” that argues the exact opposite.

In a section on the prewar jockeying in Washington, Risen describes the role of Paul Wolfowitz, then undersecretary of defense. Wolfowitz, he writes, found the CIA “insufficiently hawkish,” believed it “an arrogant, rogue institution… unwilling to support administration policymakers.” Specifically, Wolfowitz insisted on examining “the possibility that Saddam Hussein was behind the [September 11] attacks on the United States,” a possibility that the CIA discounted.

Now comes the kicker: “Israeli intelligence played a hidden role in convincing Wolfowitz that he couldn’t trust the CIA… Israeli intelligence officials frequently traveled to Washington to brief top American officials, but CIA analysts were often skeptical of Israeli intelligence reports, knowing that Mossad had very strong — even transparent — biases about the Arab world.” Wolfowitz, who “had begun meeting personally with top Israeli intelligence officials,” preferred the Mossad’s analysis to the CIA’s.

Now it cannot be that Israeli officials were at one and the same time “lukewarm about the war” yet busy shuttling back and forth to encourage Wolfowitz’s evident eagerness for that same war. From all that we know regarding Wolfowitz and his ideological associates — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle and others — the Risen version seems to me the more plausible.

“Plausible” is the problem. We are these days awash in a surge in speculation, deep into a set of plausible yet inconclusive allegations and explanations, charges and counter-charges, in which the rumored role of Israel and of Israel’s supporters is too close to the heart of the drama for comfort.

The leading current example, but scarcely the only one, is the approaching trial of Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, late of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee but now accused of “unlawfully, knowingly and willfully” conspiring from about April 1999 until about August 27, 2004, to “communicate national defense information to persons not entitled to receive it.” The source of the information was Larry Franklin, a Pentagon expert on Iran who has agreed to cooperate with the prosecution; the “persons” to whom the information was transmitted were officials at the Israeli embassy in Washington.

When the story first broke, it was widely believed that Rosen and Weissman were inadvertently caught up in an FBI investigation of Franklin. Now, however, it appears that the investigation was actually of Aipac; the language of the indictment suggests that Aipac was under investigation for more than five years.

That fact alone, one presumes, should have shocked the entire Jewish community; Aipac is its creature. And then you have the prospective implication, at trial, of a swath of top Pentagon officials — Wolfowitz, Feith and others — as well as the potential involvement of Lewis “Scooter” Libby from the office of the vice president, himself under indictment for his role in the Valerie Plame affair.

Many dots, and so far no solid information on whether or how they are connected. But the question necessarily arises: Do these diverse dots connect back to the American intervention in Iraq? After all, it is roughly the same cast of characters that insistently drummed up the case for that intervention.

And: Is current American policy toward Iran now being “played” the way that American policy toward Iraq was before the war? Obviously, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called for Israel to be wiped off the map and who has repeatedly denied the reality of the Holocaust, is a despicable fellow. It seems entirely appropriate that the United States and its European allies are taking a tough line regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

But does not the case of Iraq teach us to beware those who would cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war? How much do we know — really know — about Iran? How much do we not know?

Do we, as Rumsfeld might put it, even know what it is we do not know? (It was Risen who broke the story on warrantless eavesdropping by the National Security Agency; until he did, we did not know what we did not know.)

More parochially, what are we to make of an ongoing FBI investigation of our community’s leading pro-Israel lobby? Is this the old dual-loyalty canard raising its ugly head yet again? Was this Aipac recklessness induced by hubris, the result of an arrogance fed by Aipac’s grand success in marshaling Congress on Israel’s behalf?

And is Neal Sher, former executive director of Aipac, correct in his assertions in a recent letter addressed to the committee’s board that the upshot of all this static is a chastened, even cowed Aipac, a timorous Aipac afraid to do battle where yesterday it was almost offensively bold?

It is no secret that there are more than a few people in Washington who are delighted to see Aipac getting what they regard as its comeuppance. Among them are even some members of Congress who have long resented Aipac’s allegedly strong-arm tactics.

But such schadenfreude aside, where do those who care for Israel now go? And how and when can we disentangle America’s consensual policy toward Israel from its controversial policies regarding Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other nations in the explosive Middle East?






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