A key court filing in the legal battle between Steve Rosen and his former employers at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has been postponed, but tensions still run high.
The powerful pro-Israel group’s supporters, as well as its detractors, are bracing for the next round in what has become an all-out fight between Rosen — AIPAC’s former policy director — and the organization’s chiefs. The group fired Rosen and a colleague in 2005 after the Justice Department indicted them for receiving and passing along confidential information. The charges were dropped last year, but AIPAC said the employees had violated its own standards — possibly, it came out later, not just for their interactions with FBI informants, but for viewing pornography at the office.
Rosen responded to the firing with a $20 million defamation suit, and the depositions and documents filed on both sides in this civil action have become a food fight of unsavory allegations.
“I was not cowed by the FBI’s abuse of power, and I won’t be bullied by Howard’s abuse either,” Rosen said in a November 22 statement he provided to the Forward, referring to AIPAC’s executive director, Howard Kohr, who, according to Rosen, is responsible for the latest “orgy of destruction.”
The next round of this battle is expected when Rosen files his motion in response to AIPAC. The filing, expected today, is now anticipated late this month.
Watching from the sidelines are AIPAC’s critics, who are hoping the brawl will provide them with ammunition in their fight against the lobby’s legitimacy as an American advocacy organization. But experts and Washington insiders think that when the dust settles, the Rosen-AIPAC-pornography scandal will not have any legal or political ramifications.
“Simply receiving classified information is a nonissue,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. Aftergood said he does not think federal action against the lobby is probable, even if Rosen’s document shows that the lobby was aware of the practice of receiving classified information.
Supporters of the group also claim that although the disclosure in court filings could be seen as embarrassing to the lobby, it does not have any impact on AIPAC’s standing as a leading political powerhouse.
“By any measure, AIPAC is stronger than ever — membership, fundraising, political influence — and no kind of small lawsuit with a former employee is going to affect that,” said Josh Block, who served as the lobby’s spokesman when Rosen and his colleague, Keith Weissman, were fired after being accused by the FBI of communicating classified information.
The issue at the core of the legal dispute between Rosen and AIPAC is not the accusations of viewing pornography on company computers, which have grabbed the headlines, but the question of whether the lobby knew and approved of the practice of receiving classified information. AIPAC has maintained that by accepting classified information from Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin, Rosen and Weissman did not live up to the standards of the organization.
In his upcoming court filing, Rosen will attempt to prove that receiving secret information was the standard at AIPAC.
“AIPAC treated me brutally when trouble came. They threw me overboard and pretended I was some kind of lone wolf, when in fact Howard knew everything I did and condoned and demanded it,” Rosen wrote in an e-mail to the Forward. “Now Howard and [AIPAC’s managing director] Richard [Fishman] are making really bad decisions. It is time to make things right with me and Keith, but instead they are heaving buckets of slime, with no checks and balances.”
Patrick Dorton, a spokesman for AIPAC, said in response that the lobby “strongly disagrees with Steve Rosen’s version of events related to this litigation.” Dorton stressed that it was Rosen’s decision to sue, which he called “frivolous,” that led AIPAC to file a motion in response. “As our motion demonstrates, Steve Rosen’s claims in this matter are wildly inaccurate and are undermined by Mr. Rosen’s own admissions under oath in his deposition,” Dorton said.
Rosen, although stressing that he has “no desire to see AIPAC weakened,” has promised to present to the FBI statements of employees, legal depositions and internal AIPAC documents demonstrating that receiving classified information was an acceptable practice.
One such piece could be a 1983 memo sent by Rosen to an AIPAC donor and to then executive director Tom Dine, in which he openly stated that he had gotten access to a highly classified administration document.
In its latest filing to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, where Rosen’s civil case is to be heard, AIPAC argued that it became aware that Rosen and Weissman had received classified information only after being presented with evidence by the FBI. If Rosen succeeds in proving that AIPAC directors approved of his actions, the entire lobby could be seen as allegedly being engaged in trafficking secret information.
“New information revealed by both sides in the Rosen v. AIPAC lawsuit underscores how AIPAC really operates,” said Grant Smith, director of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy, a small not-for-profit organization that seeks to call the attention of the authorities to AIPAC’s activity and demands scrutiny of the group’s legal status.
But an outcome in which AIPAC finds itself in legal jeopardy because of the case is highly unlikely. The government has already dealt with the legal aspects of the leak and eventually decided to drop the case against Rosen and Weissman. Going after their bosses at the time would be inconsistent with the government’s approach to the issue.
AIPAC can also choose at any time to settle the case with Rosen before more information is presented. Rosen has sued for $20 million, but both sides in these kinds of civil suits often accept compromise settlements.
The pro-Israel lobby has been successful throughout the years in fighting off legal challenges both inside and outside the courtroom. AIPAC emerged untouched from the Rosen-Weissman espionage case, and has managed in the past to fend off repeated attempts by critics to get the Justice Department to categorize AIPAC as a foreign agent.
Last September, another challenge to AIPAC’s legal status was put to rest when a federal judge ended a 20-year-old suit demanding that AIPAC register as a public action committee that endorses political candidates. The judged ruled that the lobby’s work does not cross the boundaries set for advocacy on issues.
And November 22, the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy filed a complaint with the IRS, asking to revoke the lobby’s tax-exempt status.
AIPAC’s political standing also appears to be sound despite the Rosen affair.
“Of course we talked about it and we joked about it. But that was it,” said a congressional staffer who is frequently in touch with AIPAC lobbyists. The staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he did not see how the revelation that pornographic material is viewed at the AIPAC headquarters would impact the lobby’s standing as a leading voice on issues relating to Israel. A former staff member added, “In any case, the tendency on Capitol Hill is to trend toward the AIPAC talking points, and that will not change.” According to AIPAC’s former executive director Morris Amitay, “People on the Hill look at it as a case of a disgruntled employee who is trying to make some money.” Amitay, who now heads a pro-Israel PAC in Washington, said the affair will in no way “damage the respect AIPAC has on Capitol Hill or in the administration.”
The lobby can also look to the recent case of the Republican National Committee, in which employees of the RNC got reimbursed for visiting a strip club. Though the story received wide media coverage for several days, politically it did not have any impact.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.