Pro-Israel Lobbying Group Roiled by Prosecution of Two Ex-Officials
Scott Shane and David Johnston - The New York Times - March 5, 2006
WASHINGTON, March 4 - The annual gathering of the nation's top pro-Israel lobbying group, which starts here on Sunday, will be addressed by Vice President Dick Cheney and United Nations Ambassador John R. Bolton. Politicians are lined up to warn of the threat from Iran and Hamas. Workshops will offer advice on winning the legislative game on Capitol Hill.
But the official program omits a topic likely to be a major theme of corridor chatter: the explosive Justice Department prosecution of two former officials of the group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, that is ticking toward an April trial date.
The highly unusual indictment of the former officials, Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, accuses them of receiving classified information about terrorism and Middle East strategy from a Defense Department analyst, Lawrence A. Franklin, and passing it on to a journalist and an Israeli diplomat. Mr. Franklin pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison, though his sentence could be reduced based on his cooperation in the case.
The prosecution has roiled the powerful organization, known as Aipac, which at first vigorously defended Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman and then fired them last March. And it has generated considerable anger among American Jews who question why the group's representatives were singled out in the first place.
Aipac would appear to be an unlikely target for the Bush administration; it is a political powerhouse that generally shares the administration's hawkish views on the potential nuclear threat from Iran and the danger of Palestinian militancy. But the case does fit with the administration's determination to stop leaks of classified information.
Some legal experts say the prosecution threatens political and press freedom, making a felony of the commerce in information and ideas that is Washington's lifeblood. Federal prosecutors are using the Espionage Act for the first time against Americans who are not government officials, do not have a security clearance and, by all indications, are not a part of a foreign spy operation.
"The feeling in the Jewish community is one of indignation at Aipac's being unfairly targeted by federal prosecutors for trying to find out what everyone in this town is trying to find out - what the government is thinking," said Douglas M. Bloomfield, who was a legislative director of Aipac in the 1980's and who now writes a syndicated column on American Mideast policy.
As the marquee conference speakers attest, Aipac's clout has not been visibly diminished by the criminal case. Membership has increased 25 percent in the last two years to more than 100,000, and the budget has grown to $45 million, the group said. "As always, the organization is completely focused on its core mission, the strengthening of the U.S.-Israel relationship," said Patrick Dorton, an Aipac spokesman.
Mr. Bloomfield said he had been told by insiders that the investigation of Mr. Rosen, director of foreign policy issues at Aipac and an influential figure there for more than 20 years, and Mr. Weissman, a Mideast analyst with the group since 1993, had proved a "fund-raising windfall" as donors rallied to offer their support.
But the case has set off alarms among the policy groups, lobbyists and journalists who swap information, often about national security issues, with executive-branch officials and Congressional staff members. They were not reassured by a remark from the federal judge hearing the case, at Mr. Franklin's sentencing in January, that the laws on classified information were not limited to government officials.
"Persons who have unauthorized possession, who come into unauthorized possession of classified information, must abide by the law," the judge, T. S. Ellis III, said. "That applies to academics, lawyers, journalists, professors, whatever."
A January legal brief by lawyers for Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman - written in part by Viet D. Dinh, a conservative former assistant attorney general in the Bush Justice Department - argued that the charges were a dangerous effort to criminalize conduct protected by the First Amendment. That argument gets fervent support from people who may not share the Aipac officials' conservative views on foreign policy.
"If receiving and passing on national defense information is a crime, we're going to have to build a lot more jails," said Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy at the liberal Federation of American Scientists. "To make a crime of the kind of conversations Rosen and Weissman had with Franklin over lunch would not be surprising in the People's Republic of China. But it's utterly foreign to the American political system."
Peter Raven-Hansen, a law professor at George Washington University, said the case raised several legal issues and undoubtedly would end up in the next edition of his textbook on national security law.
"Leaving aside the idea that this might chill exchanges with the press, this is a guaranteed formula for selective prosecution," Mr. Raven-Hansen said. In other words, he said, so many people have conversations involving borderline-classified information that the government will not be able to prosecute them all and will have to pick and choose, raising a fundamental fairness question.
Justice Department officials will not discuss the case. But in announcing the indictment of Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman in August, Paul McNulty, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said, "Those not authorized to receive classified information must resist the temptation to acquire it, no matter what their motivation may be."
The inquiry dates back to 1999 when, according to the indictment against Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman, they first violated the Espionage Act, which makes it a crime to possess and disseminate national defense information without authorization. What remains a mystery is how and when the government first focused on the Aipac employees, and why they were singled out among the hundreds of foreign policy advocates in the capital.
Former and current intelligence officials have said the two men may have stumbled into an American intelligence operation involving electronic monitoring of Israeli interests in the United States. The indictment includes what it indicates is a verbatim quotation from an April 1999 conversation Mr. Rosen had with an official of a foreign country, identified as Israel by government officials who have been briefed on the case.
Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman are accused of orally passing on to a journalist and to foreign officials classified information about American policy options in the Middle East, an F.B.I. report on the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia and terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.
In August 2002, according to the indictment, the two Aipac officials first met Mr. Franklin, who supplied them with more information, much of it involving policy options toward Iran. In pleading guilty, Mr. Franklin said he did not intend to damage the United States but hoped the two lobbyists would be advocates for his views within the administration.
(Abbe Lowell, a lawyer for Mr. Rosen, and John N. Nassikas III, who represents Mr. Weissman, declined to discuss the case.)
Aipac and its former employees have tussled over legal fees. In October, according to a person who had been briefed about the dispute and who would describe the delicate negotiations only on condition of anonymity, the group offered the men about $800,000 apiece to cover legal fees. But they turned down the offer because it would have required them to give up their right to sue Aipac, the person said.
Though Aipac is not accused of wrongdoing, some lawyers say a trial could prove embarrassing for the group, because it could delve into the inner workings of the organization and the internal roles played by Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman.
"A trial has got to be a concern for Aipac," said Neal Sher, a former federal prosecutor and a former executive director of Aipac. "You don't know what might come out. A trial might reveal its inner workings, its dealings with the government and its dealings with Israel."
Mr. Sher, like other former Aipac officials, said one particularly sensitive point for the group would be any evidence that it ever acted at the behest of Israeli officials. Aipac officials have never registered as agents of Israel and have never been required to, because they have not acted at the "order, request, direction or control" of Israel, said Philip Friedman, the group's general counsel.
But the question of dual loyalty, to the United States and to Israel, became touchy after the investigation was revealed. At last year's conference, the group broke with tradition and did not sing the Israeli national anthem.
This year, officials have said, the tradition will be restored. Both the American and Israeli anthems are on the program.
Correction: March 10, 2006
An article on Sunday about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the indictments of two former officials of the group, who are accused of passing on classified information, omitted the credit for the source of a quotation from United States District Judge T.S. Ellis III, who is presiding over their case (an article on Feb. 12 also omitted the credit). He said: "Persons who have unauthorized possession, who come into unauthorized possession of classified information, must abide by the law. That applies to academics, lawyers, journalists, professors, whatever." The quotation came from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.