WASHINGTON — More than a week after a Pentagon official was charged with passing secret information to two employees of Washington’s pro-Israel lobby, Jewish communal leaders are still puzzled about the FBI’s investigation into the scandal.
“There still are more questions than answers out there,” said one Jewish communal official, after participating Monday in a conference call with Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Although the call — with leaders of Jewish community-relations councils across the country — was off the record, Kohr refused to answer any questions in detail, participants said. He just reassured them that the investigation was about “leaking,” not about espionage, and that the government had told Aipac that the organization is no longer the subject of the investigation.
According to media reports, law enforcement officials allege that Pentagon official Larry Franklin passed classified information along to two Aipac officials, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman. The two men were recently dismissed from their posts.
Asked why Aipac dismissed Rosen and Weissman, after months of publicly defending the two employees, Kohr reportedly replied that they engaged in “certain conduct that [Aipac] can’t condone.” Kohr did not elaborate and was not pushed to do so, participants in the call said.
Many Jewish communal leaders believe that dismissing Rosen and Weissman before Aipac’s upcoming policy conference and before Franklin’s arrest was a smart move that has helped the organization dissociate itself from the scandal. Jewish activists say that because they agree that this was the right step for Aipac to take, they are not putting any pressure on Aipac officials to disclose the reason for the dismissals.
Jewish communal leaders seem less concerned with the details of the firing than with the question of why the FBI investigation is continuing. If — as charges against Franklin apparently indicate — Rosen and Weissman are only suspected of verbally receiving secrets from Franklin, and perhaps passing them on to an Israeli diplomat, and if Aipac as an organization is no longer a target of this investigation, many wonder why the FBI seems to have deepened and broadened its probe.
Other questions are reverberating among Jewish organizations: Why is the FBI still interviewing people intimately familiar with the organization? Why is the FBI, judging from several indications, combing through documents it confiscated from Aipac’s offices in December? Why hasn’t the FBI dropped its investigation against the two former Aipac employees or concluded the investigation with indictments?
As Jewish organizational officials struggle to answer these questions, two theories have emerged.
Some activists are arguing that the investigation is politically driven by administration officials who are striving to prove that neoconservatives in the defense department and the American Jewish establishment have conspired to hijack American’s foreign policy to serve Israel’s interests.
“I have never been a big fan of conspiracy theories, but in this case it really seems like there is a fishing expedition” against pro-Israel lobbyists, said Barry Jacobs, who is a director of strategic studies at the American Jewish Committee’s Washington office. According to Jacobs, a former State Department official with broad contacts in Washington’s bureaucracy, the notion that American Jews and Pentagon neoconservatives conspired to push the United States into war against Iraq, and possibly also against Iran, is pervasive in Washington’s intelligence community. “I strongly believe that this is what’s behind the investigation,” Jacobs said.
Several other officials with Jewish groups, who are also thoroughly familiar with Washington’s bureaucracy, agreed with Jacobs’s assessment.
Another theory being advanced by some Jewish activists is that FBI agents, who confiscated many documents from Aipac’s offices, have found other potentially incriminating material not related to the Franklin scandal and are now investigating other issues. Specifically, Jewish activists say, material may have been found to refuel an old charge that Aipac should be registered as an agent for a foreign government.
Under American law, any person or group that acts “at the order, request or under the direction or control of a foreign principal” has to register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent. The repercussions of such registration would be immense. Such a step would transform a grassroots organization such as Aipac into something resembling a lobbying firm and would force the organization to be much more open about its activities, experts said.
“I think that all of us in the Jewish community in general mess up a lot when it comes to Israel advocacy,” said one activist with a major Jewish group, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“No one ever gets caught in a criminal mess, because no one intends to do anything criminally,” the official said, “but it is routine for us to say: This is our policy on a certain issue, but we must check what the Israelis think. We as a community do it all the time.”
Another senior staffer with a major Jewish group explained: “Doing work as a lobbyist, I often think: What would the Israelis want me to do — so, where is the line between being a pro-Israel lobbyist and representing the wishes of somebody else? I don’t know where that line is.” The official continued: “When does [our work] change from being a cheerleader to being a client?”
Whatever the reason for the FBI’s widening investigation may be, it is already having an impact on the conduct of Jewish activists in Washington.
“When I am meeting with Israelis, I am extra careful,” said an official with a major Jewish group. “I wouldn’t want to even create the impression of impropriety.”
Still, most Jewish activists said, the Franklin scandal will not overshadow Aipac’s annual policy conference later this month. The three-day convention, which is set to open May 22, will feature Prime Minister Sharon, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, all the Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress and scores of other VIPs.