The indictment of two former pro-Israel lobbyists last week on charges that they shared classified information with foreign officials and others is throwing light on the much-debated question of what is behind the so-called Aipac “spy” scandal.
Some observers in the Jewish community argue that the indictments are the culmination of a long-running effort by some elements in the FBI and CIA to clip the influence of Israel and its allies in Washington. Others in and outside of Jewish communal circles are painting the case primarily as a show of muscle by those looking to crack down on government leaks.
For months, the Jewish communal world has buzzed with speculation about the origins of the scandal. It broke in late August 2004 on the eve of the Republican National Convention, when CBS News reported on an FBI raid on the offices of the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. This past May, Pentagon analyst Lawrence Franklin was arrested, and later indicted, for sharing classified defense information with two top Aipac staffers, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman. According to press reports, prosecutors believe that Rosen and Weissman passed the information, which concerned a draft American policy toward Iran and information about the plans of Iranian agents in Iraq, to an Israeli diplomat.
Rosen was Aipac’s policy director and the architect of its trademark executive-branch lobbying. Weissman was its top Iran analyst. Aipac fired the men in April, saying that they had engaged in conduct that was not part of their jobs.
Last week, the Justice Department charged Weissman and Rosen with “conspiracy to communicate national defense information to people not entitled to receive it.” Although Rosen and Weissman were charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, the charges against them do not rise to the seriousness of espionage. They do, however, carry a hefty sentence: a maximum of 10 years in prison. Rosen is also charged with communicating national defense information, also punishable by 10 years in prison. Both men deny the charges. They are expected to appear August 16 in a federal court in Alexandria, Va.
From the outset, the investigation set off a wave of speculation: Did it stem from a dispute over American policy in Iran? Was it about a fight between the administration and its intelligence agencies over the war in Iraq, which some in the agencies blamed on the influence of such neoconservatives as Franklin’s boss, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith? Did it result from residual suspicion among some elements of the permanent government over the spying of naval analyst Jonathan Pollard, who pleaded guilty in 1986 to spying for Israel?
Last week, the picture became a little clearer, at least in the minds of some observers. According to the indictment, the government has been surveilling the two lobbyists’ movements and recording their phone calls since at least 1999. In that year, it alleges, Rosen and Weissman had conversations with a “foreign official” in which they disclosed classified information about the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia and certain terrorist activities in Central Asia.
The early date of the surveillance suggests that the scandal did not find its genesis in disagreements over Iran policy, the influence of the neoconservatives, or the intramural squabbles of the intelligence agencies and the Defense Department — all developments that arose after the inauguration of President Bush in 2001. Rather, some observers say, the scandal likely has its roots in a confluence of events that began earlier.
In 2000, anti-leak hawks in Congress passed legislation that sought to close loopholes and update outdated language in the Espionage Act. President Bill Clinton vetoed the bill after news organizations argued that the reforms would endanger press freedoms. When George W. Bush became president in 2001, the matter was raised with Attorney General John Ashcroft, who referred it to a task force. That effort also went nowhere.
At the same time, sources note, Israeli diplomats were being watched closely by some figures in the intelligence community who continued to suspect, after the debacle of the Pollard affair, that Israel never had stopped spying in the United States. Rosen and Weissman showed up on the FBI’s radar when they met with officials at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, and then a probe was launched.
According to this thinking, several different groups of career civil servants within the federal government have separately reached the conclusion that Israel and its American allies wield too much influence in Washington and consider themselves immune from standards governing other lobbies. Some Washington hands and Jewish communal officials believe that the indictment against Rosen, Weissman and their associate, Franklin, is a test case in the effort by these factions to rein in the pro-Israel lobby.
“There has always been a group in Washington that has been jealous of the U.S.-Israel special relationship and is resentful about what it perceives to be Israeli influence on U.S. policy,” said Jerry Goodman, executive director of the National Committee for Labor Israel.
But the leak hawks also seem to be having their day with the case. In announcing the indictment, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Paul McNulty, appeared to characterize the charges as sending a message far beyond the case at hand.
“Those entrusted with safeguarding our nation’s secrets must remain faithful to that trust,” McNulty said. “Those not authorized to receive classified information must resist the temptation to acquire it, no matter what their motivation may be.”
McNulty called the indicted men “individuals who put their own interests and their own views of foreign policy ahead of American national security.”
Others argued that the broad use of the Espionage Act in the case could ensnare others even farther afield. “The Franklin indictment is a sign that [Bush adviser Karl] Rove and any other White House aide involved in the Valerie Plame/CIA leak might be vulnerable to prosecution under the Espionage Act,” wrote David Corn, a writer for the liberal magazine The Nation, on the magazine’s Web site.
Jewish communal officials expressed shock and dismay at the sweep of the indictment and at McNulty’s statements, which they claimed were calculated to cast a pall not only over their activities but over most lobbying activity in Washington.
“This is not a phenomenon that’s unique to the pro-Israel community,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “There are vast sectors of the nonprofit world, lawyers and lobbyists of all kinds whose business it is to try to get information and insights. That’s Washington. Many in government are eager to meet and share tidbits. This issue has ramifications not just for the pro-Israel community but for every advocacy group working in our nation’s capital.”
Rosen’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell of Chadbourne & Parke’s LLP’s Washington office, also suggested that the case could chill public discourse. The indictment “represents a misguided attempt to criminalize the public’s right to participate in the political process,” Lowell said in a statement.
Aipac certainly is feeling a chill. It announced August 5 that it had hired former Justice Department officials who now work for Howrey LLP, a Washington-based law firm that consults with organizations engaged in lobbying, to review its lobbying practices.
“The conduct of Rosen and Weissman was clearly not part of their job,” an Aipac official said. “However, we made a decision that the events of the last year warranted an internal review of policies and procedures related to information collection and dissemination.”
“The goal is to ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again,” the official said.
In private conversations, some Jewish communal leaders were voicing even darker thoughts. “The motives behind it are not pure,” one organizational official told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. “Even if I did not always like [Aipac], I don’t feel comfortable with this inquiry.” Another, according to the Ha’aretz article, said, “The FBI’s motives are antisemitic. It is no coincidence that they made problems for [former United States ambassador to Israel] Martin Indyk because of a computer he took out of the office, and [former national security adviser] Sandy Berger about documents. They suspect all the Jews.”
Other Jewish communal officials professed to be underwhelmed by the evidence the government had assembled and disclosed in the indictment. Asked one, “Five years of fishing, and this is what they got?”