Mounting Scandal at Aipac Prompts Talk of Lobbying Powerhouse’s Demise
WASHINGTON — With senior officials at America’s top pro-Israel organization facing the specter of federal indictments, staffers at other groups are beginning to waver in their support and are warning that the mounting legal scandal could damage the political credibility of the entire Jewish community.
The doubts were prompted by last week’s FBI raid of the offices of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and by news that four of its top officials had been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury. In particular, the doubters said, the decision of a federal prosecutor to turn to a grand jury on a matter involving Aipac was ominous and severely undermined the organization’s claim that it was the victim of a few rogue investigators.
Communal insiders warn that an indictment of an Aipac official or a trial that casts the association in a negative light could severely weaken the lobbying prowess of all Jewish organizations at a time when Israel and Jewish agencies are facing rising hostility in many corners, and depending increasingly on support from Washington lawmakers.
“If this goes to court, and I am not even talking about a guilty verdict, it will be very damaging to the community,” said an official at one national Jewish organization. “If this goes to court, Aipac as Aipac will be on trial, and if Aipac goes down, it’s a disaster for the whole community.”
Jewish communal leaders are still publicly standing behind Aipac and expressing full confidence in its integrity and innocence. But for the first time, some are quietly voicing doubts about the organization’s blanket denials of wrongdoing.
“It’s okay to say once that the FBI is ticked at Aipac, but a grand jury with subpoenas — that’s not someone running a grudge campaign,” said an official with a major Jewish organization. “Clearly, somebody has thought this through. And they are looking for something.”
Steve Pomerantz, a former FBI investigator who consults for Jewish organizations sounded a similar note. He said the nature of the subpoenas suggests that FBI investigators know what they’re looking for.
“This is not a fishing expedition,” he said. “It’s clear to me they have some specific information which is leading them in a specific direction.”
Last week, four Aipac officials — executive director Howard Kohr, managing director Richard Fishman, communications director Renee Rothstein and research director Rafi Danziger — were hit with subpoenas. The U.S. attorney in Alexandria, Va., Paul McNulty, a prosecutor with experience in criminal cases involving national security, is handling the case.
Investigators first raided Aipac’s offices in August, at which time some observers suggested that the probe was focused mainly on Larry Franklin, a Pentagon employee suspected of passing to the group classified documents on Iran. However, insiders say the investigation has moved away from Franklin and toward Aipac and its director of research, Steve Rosen.
Immediately after the FBI raid, the organization issued a public statement saying: “As we have said from the beginning, Aipac has done nothing wrong.”
Several prominent communal leaders — including Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — were urging other Jewish organizations to be patient as the investigation unfolds.
“None of us has the luxury to lose patience with Aipac,” Foxman said. The legal process “is so bizarre and convoluted, so sensitive, that when you are at its focus you don’t do what your guts tell you to do, but what your lawyers tell you.” And the lawyers in such situations, he said, tell their clients “to say less.” Foxman added: “Anyone who regards himself a friend of Aipac and cares about Aipac should understand that,” Foxman said.
Hoenlein said, “I see people standing behind Aipac,” adding that “the people I hear from are losing patience with the government and with the way it’s being handled” — not with Aipac.
During a December 10 conference call, Kohr and Bernice Manocherian, Aipac’s volunteer president, asked key Jewish communal leaders for patience and pledged that eventually Aipac would be vindicated. The two Aipac officials accused unnamed agencies within the administration of nefarious motives, and conducted a baseless fishing expedition against the pro-Israel lobbying group.
Some participants in the call were skeptical. “I sure hope that what they are saying is true, and that they really made sure, internally, that none of them has done anything wrong,” one participant said. “If it turns out to be different, there is going to be a big problem for all of us, not just for Aipac.”
At one time, Aipac was essentially an arm of the Conference of Presidents, a coalition of 52 Jewish organizations generally viewed as the Jewish community’s consensus voice on Middle East affairs. But in recent decades the board has grown, and its makeup has been significantly altered so that independent donors — not leaders of other Jewish organizations — hold the overwhelming majority of votes.
The chairman of the Conference of Presidents is a member of Aipac’s board of directors, a group of 40 people who confer monthly to set the organization’s policy and manage its affairs. In addition, all the presidents of member groups in the conference sit on Aipac’s executive committee, a larger body of some 580 people that convenes two to four times a year.
Aipac, in turn, is a member of the conference.
“People, even in Washington, don’t know the difference between some Jewish group and Aipac,” said an official with a major Jewish organization. “For them, any Jew lobbying on the Hill is Aipac.”
This perception of a stronger connection to Aipac often has been an asset for other Jewish organizations when attempting to advance issues unrelated to Israel, the official said. But with the current legal developments, some Jewish activists say they are beginning to feel uncomfortable with the link. “There are some who are beginning to think in terms of self preservation,” the official said.
Fears that the case was headed to court increased this week, with some Jewish activists assuming that the issuing of subpoenas meant that the grand jury had been asked to issue indictments.
A grand jury is a 23-person panel that acts as a check to prevent the
Government’s abuse of its power to arbitrarily bring people to court. The grand jury decides whether a prosecutor has probable cause to indict a suspect. Unlike the 12-person “petit jury” that sits in court, the grand jury’s decision does not require unanimity, only a simple majority (12 out of 23).
Subpoenas are not necessarily an indication that indictments are imminent, but they can be indications that “the case is at a rather advanced stage,” said Rita Simon, a professor at American University’s school of public affairs and school of law and an expert on the jury system. “This indicates, obviously, that the jury is not dropping the case.”
Almost all federal criminal cases referred by prosecutors to a grand jury for indictment end in charges being filed. In the 1993 fiscal year, federal prosecutors secured 99,341 indictments, according to official Department of Justice records; only 55 requests for indictments were declined by a grand jury.
There is no indication, however, that such a referral has been made in the case involving Aipac. The government could be using the grand jury at this stage as an investigative tool to compel people to testify under oath for the purpose of obtaining more evidence, which the prosecutor might feel he is lacking, according to Jack King, director of public affairs at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Attorney Abbe Lowell, who is representing Rosen and Keith Weissman, Aipac’s deputy director of foreign policy issues, cautioned against making any assumptions based on recent news reports.
“Anyone who would say that it is either a decision or inevitable that my clients would be charged because of the grand jury subpoenas, that person would be dead wrong,” Lowell told the Forward.
In August, Justice Department sources told the press that Rosen and Weissman were the Aipac officials suspected of passing classified information from Franklin, the midlevel Pentagon official, on to an Israeli diplomat. The government leakers also said that the federal investigation into alleged wrongdoings at Aipac started as early as 2001. Reportedly, the investigation focused on a secret White House draft on Iran that Franklin allegedly handed over to Rosen and Weissman in the summer of 2003. Rosen and Weissman have not been summoned to testify before the grand jury, although their lawyer told the prosecutor months ago that they were willing to testify.
According to a report in the Jerusalem Post earlier this week, Franklin agreed this summer to cooperate with the FBI in a set-up operation. Citing government sources, the report said Franklin was asked by the FBI to tell Rosen and Weissman a false tale: He had learned that Israeli agents in northern Iraq were being targeted by Iran and that they urged the Aipac officials to ring the alarm bells with the Bush administration.
Instead, according to the Jerusalem Post, Rosen and Weissman relayed the information to their Israeli contacts. Such an action can be regarded as legal if the person who relayed such information can prove that he didn’t know it was secret. A spokesman for Aipac refused to comment on the story, instead repeating the organization’s assertion that “neither Aipac nor any of its employees have ever received information they believed was secret or classified.” Aipac’s lawyer, Nat Lewin, told the Forward that the Jerusalem Post report was an “interesting hypothesis.”
The article appeared to contradict earlier reports claiming that the FBI was already monitoring a meeting with Aipac officials and an Israeli diplomat, when they were surprised by Franklin’s sudden appearance with documents relating to Iran.
The Aipac investigation had seemed to be dormant for months, with some speculating that it was put on hold because of the presidential election. In the meantime, Aipac had garnered strong support from lawmakers and American Jewish leaders, even using the investigation in its fund-raising drive.
Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser and nominee for secretary of state, spoke to the organization’s national summit in Florida in October.
This week, on Capitol Hill, the new developments in the scandal are causing little furor, congressional staffers said, noting that the news came while Congress was not in session. In addition, according to congressional staffers, Aipac enjoys a great deal of credit on the Hill and, in the words of one aide, “is being held untouchable until proven otherwise.”
— The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.