WASHINGTON — With America’s pro-Israel lobby scrambling to combat media leaks from unnamed government officials, the White House is drawing criticism from congressmen and Jewish communal officials over the FBI investigation into allegations that officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee illegally transferred secret information to Israel.
Lawmakers and Jewish organizational leaders are questioning the motivation for the investigation and its two-year course, stressing that no indictments have emerged — only leaks from administration officials familiar with the FBI probe. In addition to expressing outrage over the media leaks, several Congressmen are also condemning the investigation itself, which they say has spawned unfair accusations of disloyalty against Aipac and represents an abuse of power on the part of Attorney General John Ashcroft.
“To think that one of the leading American Jewish organizations has been investigated for two years, and the highest people at the White House were aware of it, is extremely unsettling,” said Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat. “If there was an individual or group who broke the law, they need to be held accountable. But the broad-brushing of Aipac and the American Jewish community is extremely inflammatory and needs to be stopped.”
Wexler, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Ashcroft last week demanding that the Justice Department either submit charges or “exonerate the American Israel Public Affairs Committee of this public castigation.”
Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank said that the investigation “does appear to be an effort to discredit, to get Aipac.” He said: “I’m troubled by it. It’s a very inappro-
In an indication of their growing estrangement with the Bush administration, neoconservatives are slamming the White House for failing to stop what they describe as an antisemitic campaign to marginalize them being conducted by the CIA and the State Department.
This view was outlined in a memo circulating among neoconservative foreign policy analysts in Washington. Obtained by the Forward, the memo criticizes the White House for not refuting press reports on the FBI’s investigation of Pentagon analyst Lawrence Franklin that suggest wrongdoing on the part of Jewish officials at the Defense Department.
“If there is any truth to any of the accusations, why doesn’t the White House demand that they bring on the evidence? On the record,” the priate effort to criminalize a policy debate. It’s John Ashcroft, and the president and [Vice President Dick] Cheney.”
Also voicing criticism were the two Jewish Republican senators, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Norm Coleman of Minnesota. Specter told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Ashcroft should launch an investigation into the leaks. “I know Aipac; I know its integrity,” he said. “It’s a smear.” Coleman said that “the real issue here is preventing leaks — of classified materials and about ongoing investigations.” The Minnesota senator argued that “to leak details about an ongoing FBI investigation and the alleged role of Aipac is premature at best and a smear campaign at worst.”
At least one lawmaker, Representative John Conyers of Michigan, was calling for a congressional investigation regarding the substance of the allegations. Conyers, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, asked the committee’s Republican chairman, James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, to open an investigation into the claim that a “rogue element of the United States government” may have worked with a foreign government in possible contravention of foreign policy.
In Jewish communal circles, the criticisms and calls for investigations were focused on either the media leaks or the probe itself.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, suggested that the administration and media had blundered. “There will be a lot of hard questions that will have to be answered by a lot of people when this is all over,” Hoenlein said. “People will have to be held to account. What happened? Why it happened? What was going on in the last two years?”
Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, echoed several other Jewish organizational leaders in demanding an investigation into the leaks. “Who did it and why? What’s the agenda?”
The rising chorus of criticism comes as it becomes clear that, contrary to the predictions of Aipac leaders, the controversy is not fading away. In the two weeks since CBS News first reported that the FBI is investigating allegations that a Defense Department analyst transferred secret information to Israel through Aipac, anonymous sources have been leaking information to the media on a regular basis, suggesting that the probe extends beyond one Pentagon official sharing one document with Israeli diplomats or pro-Israeli lobbyists:
• According to press reports quoting several administration officials, the investigation into possible wrongdoing by Aipac was launched more than two years ago, based on suspicions that Aipac employees passed secret information to Israel. One report said that the president’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and her top deputy, Stephen Hadley, were informed of the probe not long after Bush took office in 2001.
• The alleged transfer of a secret White House policy brief by a Pentagon Iran analyst, Larry Franklin, to Aipac staffers last summer was seen by investigators as the “smoking gun.” It advanced the investigation, particularly after Franklin agreed to cooperate with investigators.
• FBI agents wiretapped the homes of two senior Aipac staffers, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, who were interviewed by FBI agents August 27, the day the story broke. Their offices were searched and the hard drive of Rosen’s computer was copied, according to reports. Abbe Lowell, a criminal lawyer who specializes in white-collar criminal defense, is representing Rosen and Weissman. In the past, Lowell has defended politicians accused of ethics violations.
• At the Pentagon, agents focused on Franklin but also interviewed other officials at the office of Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith. According to press reports, Feith was also interviewed, and some of these Pentagon officials, according to reports, are also being investigated on suspicion that they may have told Iraqi dissident Ahmed Chalabi that the United States has broken secret Iranian communications codes — information that Chalabi is suspected of having transferred to Iran. According to one report, the Chalabi investigation, or even a part of the investigation, is linked with connections between Pentagon officials and pro-Israel lobbyists. Other reports say the two investigations are separate.
• Franklin, according to an Israeli press report, was in contact not only with the political counselor at Israel’s Washington embassy, Naor Gilon, but also with the intelligence attaché, a colonel who was identified by his first initial, Y. The colonel, according to the daily Ma’ariv , received information from Franklin and reported his contacts with the American analyst to his superiors at Israel’s military intelligence command in Tel Aviv. Israeli officials told Ma’ariv , however, that there was nothing illegal or unethical in the contacts with Franklin, which are described as “working meetings.”
• Parallel to its investigation into Aipac’s conduct, the FBI had reportedly been conducting surveillance of Israeli diplomat Gilon. The Aipac investigation and the surveillance of Gilon reportedly converged — and led to the Pentagon — after Franklin walked into a meeting between Gilon and the two Aipac staffers at a Washington restaurant a year ago.
• Media reports, attributed to government sources, also said that despite its denials, Israel still runs an aggressive spying operation in the United States, which American counterterrorism agents are surveying.
The wave of allegations and leaks has Jewish activists worried. “The longer this story is out there without concrete facts or some conclusion, the more we will bleed,” one Jewish organizational official said.
One concern voiced by Jewish activists was that Aipac’s enemies would use this opportunity to discredit the Jewish community. The first such salvo came from conservative pundit and former presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan last Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Alluding to Jonathan Pollard, the American Jewish Navy analyst now serving a life sentence for spying for Israel, Buchanan said: “We also need to investigate whether there is a nest of Pollardites in the Pentagon who have been transmitting American secrets through Aipac, the Israeli lobby, over to Reno Road, the Israeli embassy, to be transferred to Mr. Sharon.” If the allegations proved true, he said, “we are getting dangerously close to the T-word,” an apparent reference to treason.
Such attacks on Aipac will affect the whole Jewish community, communal insiders said. An official with one major Jewish organization worried that Aipac’s aggressive lobbying tactics have alienated some lawmakers, making them more likely to move away from the organization as the scandal unfolds. “They have a crappy reputation with some members of Congress who say certain [positive] things publicly, and behind the scenes say: ‘I am tired of them twisting my arm.’”
Several Jewish activists, speaking on condition of anonymity, also cautioned against what they described as a defiant reaction on the part of some communal leaders who raised the specter of antisemitic conspiracy.
“If every single time we get into trouble we cry antisemitism, no one is going to believe us when we confront the real problem of antisemitism,” a senior official of a Jewish organization said. Another organizational official said: “It’s ridiculous to react like that before you know what happened there. In the absence of accurate knowledge, any comment is just silly.”