WASHINGTON — As the FBI intensifies its investigation of Washington’s pro-Israel lobby, Jewish organizations are charging elements of the government with orchestrating a borderline-antisemitic smear campaign against the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The community’s wall-to-wall defense of the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse comes in response to media reports that the FBI is investigating the possibility that a Pentagon analyst passed classified material on to Aipac officials, who then handed the information over to the Israeli embassy in Washington.
Early in the week, many Jewish communal officials were advising a relatively muted response, hoping the scandal would blow over quickly. But in recent days, law enforcement officials have told reporters that the FBI’s investigation is intensifying, arrests are imminent and the case has been assigned to federal prosecutors. In addition, according to one top GOP congressman, the House could end up launching its own probe of the allegations.
Depending on how the investigation plays out, Jewish communal insiders said, the allegations could severely undermine the influence of Aipac, the most influential pro-Israel organization in Washington and one of the country’s most powerful lobbying groups. In turn, they added, the scandal could damage American-Israeli relations and hamper efforts to stop Iran’s push for nuclear weapons. With the stakes running so high, Jewish communal leaders are rallying to Aipac’s defense.
Several Jewish organizational leaders are expressing outrage over reports that an Israeli diplomat and Jewish organizational officials were under FBI surveillance. Others are also calling for a federal probe into what they describe as an unfounded campaign of government leaks aimed at smearing Aipac and Israel in order to weaken neoconservative officials in the Bush administration.
“The leaks are more serious than the charges because once you look at the charges, they don’t amount to anything,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “When things quiet down, we should be calling for hearings and investigations into the leaks.”
The ADL director also blasted the apparent surveillance being conducted by the FBI. “We wake up in the morning to learn that the American government is surveying a registered diplomat — based on what? And then the case grows because he happens to have lunch with a bureaucrat and a Jewish organization?” Foxman said. “All that is very troubling. I hope if there is an investigation or hearings that we will come to some understanding about who set this in motion.”
A spokesman with one Jewish group said it was likely that other Jewish organizations were also being monitored.
The FBI refused to answer any questions about its ongoing investigations or surveillance targets.
In an August 27 dispatch for CBS News, Leslie Stahl reported that the FBI has been investigating for more than a year whether a Pentagon analyst passed to Israel secret materials about White House deliberations over Iran, using Aipac as a conduit. The probe was described as an espionage investigation. But press reports during the weekend suggested that the suspicions were less severe and that they may involve an unauthorized leak of confidential information rather than spying.
This week, however, Justice Department sources have been painting a more ominous picture in leaks to reporters. According to some press reports, the FBI was surveying an Israeli diplomat and Aipac officials for more than a year and a half, on suspicions of spying. The surveillance, reportedly, included phone tapping and photographing. There was no indication of what may have triggered the probe.
In the course of the investigation, more than a year ago, FBI agents were reportedly monitoring a meeting between an Israeli diplomat and an Aipac official at a Washington restaurant. As the two were talking, Pentagon official Lawrence Franklin, the head of the Iran desk at the Department of Defense, joined the two. Franklin, who was previously stationed in Israel as a specialist for the U.S. Air Force Reserve, soon became the focus of the probe, and at one point reportedly was seen trying to pass a classified document on the administration’s Iran policy to an Aipac staffer.
Two Aipac staffers were mentioned in press reports in connection to the investigation: Steve Rosen, the group’s veteran director of foreign policy affairs, who is considered second in seniority to Aipac’s executive director, Howard Kohr, and Keith Weissman, who handles Iran, the Persian Gulf and oil issues.
The two were reportedly interviewed by FBI agents August 27, as the story broke in the media. The interviews were reportedly halted when the two asked to talk to a lawyer. The New York Times reported Wednesday that the FBI interviews of the two Aipac officials will resume shortly, but for now it appears unlikely that either man will be accused of any wrongdoing. Neither has been advised that he is a target of the investigation, and government officials said that the men’s legal status remained uncertain, according to the Times.
Aipac spokesmen refused to comment on the identity of the officials implicated.
The Israeli diplomat whose name was mentioned — Naor Gilon, the Israeli Embassy’s political adviser — is spending the summer in Israel. He told Ma’ariv that he did nothing wrong. “All my activities were well within the parameters of accepted norms and procedures,” he said.
Franklin, a non-Jewish polyglot who friends and colleagues at the Pentagon described as a neoconservative and a staunch supporter of Israel, is reportedly cooperating with investigators.
According to one congressional leader, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, a congressional probe is possible. Blunt, a Missouri Republican, issued a statement saying: “While the House will want to look carefully at any allegations that might endanger our national security, it will begin that look with a record of great confidence in our relationship with Aipac.”
Blunt’s press secretary said that “should the allegations prove to warrant” such a probe, there was talk about a possible “congressional investigation” or “an informal fact-finding” look into suspicions of wrongdoing by Aipac employees and Israeli officials. But other congressional leaders said they were unaware of the possibility of such a probe, adding that one would be unlikely as long as the FBI investigation has not produced conclusive evidence of wrongdoing.
In a conference call Monday with Kohr and Aipac’s president, Bernice Manocherian, Jewish communal leaders from across the political spectrum voiced staunch support for the organization and expressed confidence that its officials had done nothing wrong. During the 45-minute call, as well as in public statements, Jewish communal leaders did not ask Aipac executives to lay out their version of the facts or to explain reports that the group had been under FBI surveillance for more than one year.
In several public statements, Aipac has not denied that its staffers held meetings with Franklin or relayed information from him to Israeli officials. Instead, the organization has insisted that it did not knowingly receive or pass along any classified information.
This explanation seemed to satisfy many Jewish communal leaders, as well as the dozens of influential lawmakers who showed up for Aipac events in New York during the Republican convention (please see story on Page 9).
Several participants in the conference call said they believed that the allegations were part of an effort by certain elements in the CIA and the State Department to undercut the influence of neoconservative officials in the Bush administration.
Aipac’s defenders attempted to poke a slew of holes in the version of the case against the organization being put forth in the media. For example, Aipac supporters said, Israeli officials and Aipac executives are in a position to contact Franklin’s superiors directly about the administration’s debates over Iran policy. They also asked why, if the FBI had such explosive evidence of espionage, as its agents have suggested in leaks to the media, the bureau has not acted on the information after a year of investigations.
Some participants in the conference call Monday suggested launching a media counterattack, but were convinced by several of the more experienced communal leaders that a better press strategy would be to keep a low profile in hope that the story would fade away. “We all believe that this story will quietly deflate,” said the head of one Jewish organization. “If it doesn’t, however, and the accusations will really amount to crimes, that would be devastating… for the whole community.”
In several ways, Jewish community leaders said, the scandal is bound to cause damage to Israel and Aipac, as well as to the United States-Israel relationship. American officials are likely to be worried about the FBI monitoring in their contacts with Israelis. Aipac, an organization that to a large degree is successful because of its image of virtual omnipotence, is weakened when portrayed as vulnerable. Cooperation between Israel and the United States in stopping Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons also may suffer.
In the short run, Jewish activists said, the greatest damage could be the re-emergence of the specter of Jonathan Pollard, the American Jewish Navy analyst who was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for spying on the United States for Israel. His case raised new questions in certain quarters of the defense establishment about the loyalty of Jewish employees. “In one way this is different, because Franklin isn’t Jewish,” said a prominent American Jewish activist. “In another it’s worse: Aipac is caught in the middle, and that casts a shadow over Jewish agencies and institutions.”