December 9, 2004
AIPAC Probe Fails to Erode Support
The public resurrection of a federal investigation involving Washington's top pro-Israel lobby has done little to shake Jewish confidence in the group -- but some organizations worry about the long road that now appears ahead.
FBI investigators searched the Washington headquarters of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Dec. 1, the second search in five months.
At the same time, the agents subpoenaed four top officials to appear before a grand jury in Virginia later this month: Howard Kohr, AIPAC executive director; Richard Fishman, managing director; Renee Rothstein, communications director, and Raphael Danziger, research director.
Sources said that federal investigators have interviewed several former AIPAC employees in recent weeks. An FBI official confirmed the search but had no further comment, and a spokesman for the U.S. Attorneys Office also would not comment.
A new report also suggests two of the alleged targets in the investigation, Steve Rosen, AIPAC's director of foreign policy issues, and Keith Weissman, an Iran specialist, may have been set up by the FBI. The Jerusalem Post reported Sunday that the FBI directed a Pentagon official to give the two AIPAC staffers intelligence about alleged dangers facing Israeli agents in northern Iraq, which Rosen and Weissman later allegedly shared with Israeli officials in Washington.
AIPAC continues to defend the integrity of the organization.
"Neither AIPAC nor any member of our staff has broken any law, nor has AIPAC or its employees ever received information they believed was secret or classified," the group said in a statement.
AIPAC's support on Capitol Hill and among U.S. Jews has been steadfast since the controversy first erupted in August. The latest developments have hardly dented that wall, especially among the grassroots.
Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), the umbrella group for Jewish community relations councils (JCRC), said JCRCs around the country have not received calls about the latest developments, a sharp contrast with August, when JCPA conference calls on the matter drew hundreds of participants.
"It's kind of amazing how low priority this issue is," she said. "I think a lot of people think the investigation will show there's nothing there, and we'll move on."
Still, Jewish leaders expressed anxiety at what appeared to be a long haul for AIPAC.
"A lot of people thought, when nobody followed up, that they were going to just let it die," Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said of the FBI investigation. "But you know when people bring charges to a grand jury, chances are this will be the tip of the iceberg."
Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor and a former prosecutor, said this "is obviously a very serious matter."
"It does not necessarily mean there will be indictments or that we know who the targets are, but a grand jury has a great deal of power," she explained. "They can call witnesses, documents, people who go can't bring lawyers -- it's usually all very exhausting."
A former top Justice Department official suggested that going to a grand jury meant the investigation had become adversarial.
Levenson said it was significant that Weissman and Rosen were not among those subpoenaed -- targets of a probe almost never appear before a grand jury in the early stages of the investigation.
"Usually the people who are brought in at the initial stages are designated as witnesses, rather than targets," she said. "You work from the outside in. The targets are the people in the middle of the bull's-eye."
When investigators first arrived at AIPAC's offices in August, seizing computer files and interviewing Rosen and Weissman, many suggested that AIPAC was secondary to an investigation into Larry Franklin, a Pentagon analyst suspected of passing the group classified documents on Iran. However, insiders say the investigation has appeared to be moving away from Franklin and toward Rosen and AIPAC.
Making things even murkier was the Jerusalem Post account, which alleged that Franklin, already under FBI investigation, cooperated with authorities and, at the FBI's request, detailed for Rosen and Weissman presumed threats to Israelis in northern Iraq. The AIPAC staffers allegedly passed that information on to Israel.
If there was such a setup, sources close to those being investigated said, it was so subtle that its nefariousness apparently went unnoticed by its targets, who were unaware that what they were allegedly doing would be considered illegal.
AIPAC said in its statement: "We continue to cooperate fully with the governmental authorities and believe any court of law or grand jury will conclude that AIPAC employees have always acted legally, properly and appropriately."
The sources insisted that whatever information Rosen and Weissman allegedly passed on, it did not involve an exchange of documents, classified or otherwise. Even if Weissman and Rosen allegedly passed on information they knew to be classified, it is not clear that it was illegal.
Two former federal prosecutors said that government officials have an obligation not to disclose classified information, but the obligations to civilians who receive that information are not as clear. If an outsider bribes or otherwise induces a government official to give him classified information, he could be guilty of conspiracy, one of the former prosecutors said. But, at least according to the Jerusalem Post account, that was not the case.
Some former AIPAC employees suggested that the group could be under investigation for acting as an agent for Israel. Under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, a foreign agent is any individual or group that works under the direction of a foreign government. However, AIPAC has always maintained that it represents American supporters of the Jewish state, not Israel itself.
Some Jewish leaders suggested that AIPAC -- with its reputation for erring unstintingly on the side of caution when it comes to lobbying rules -- was the least likely group to walk into such a trap.
"They have always been scrupulous about the rules and not stepping over the line," said Rabbi David Saperstein, executive director of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center.
Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) suggested the FBI was creating a "moral dilemma" for AIPAC officials, trying to entrap them to tell Israelis about information that could save innocent lives. Wexler wrote to President Bush last week, asking him to investigate media leaks and other lapses in the AIPAC investigation.
He said he hopes the matter will be broached when the Senate holds confirmations for Bush's choices for secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, who now serves as national security adviser, and for attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, who in his new role would oversee the FBI.
"The president is responsible for the particulars of this investigation and the apparent increased action that has transpired," Wexler said.
Jewish organizational leaders said their biggest concern right now is how the negative media attention paid to AIPAC will reflect the broader perception of American Jews and Israel advocacy. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), said the community will stand together, although some Jewish activists may become anxious.
"People get impatient," Foxman said, noting that the ADL was subject to its own investigation a decade ago by the Justice Department.
"This will impact on the community," he said. "Some will be less confident in standing together. That's very normal."
Others will note the positive signals, he said, including the fact that both Bush and Rice spoke to AIPAC during the two years the FBI investigation has presumably been going on, and that AIPAC officials met Rice at the White House late last month. AIPAC was eager to underscore such successes, saying that membership and fundraising have increased since the case first made headlines in August.
"On Capitol Hill in the last three months alone, several measures that strengthen America's policies in the Middle East have been passed with overwhelming support," AIPAC said in a statement. "Israel's annual foreign aid package has just been approved by Congress, giving Israel some $2.6 billion and extending the duration of Israel's loan guarantees."
The group also noted that the Senate recently passed by unanimous vote a bill expanding Homeland Security cooperation between Israel and the United States. The Senate also approved a resolution supporting Israel's disengagement plan and Bush's call for democracy as a prerequisite for Middle East peace and the "road map" peace plan. The extension of the loan guarantees was an especially sweet victory, considering the administration cut a portion of the guarantees last year to punish Israel for settlement activity.
Still, the grand jury deliberations will preoccupy key AIPAC staffers at a critical time for Israel, when its government is seeking administration and congressional support for renewed talks with the Palestinians and ahead of a planned, controversial withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
If the grand jury probe leads to indictments and convictions of senior AIPAC staffers, the organization could suffer damage, a top Washington lobby watcher said.
"If it turns out that AIPAC staffers were involved in illegal activities, it will hurt AIPAC's reputation on the Hill," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "It will present a problem in terms of people having to deal with them."
What ensues depends on whether those at the center of any emerging scandal acted as rogues or were part of a pattern, Noble said.
"AIPAC is a powerful lobbying group, it does have a certain amount of capital, but that can be used up quickly in a really damaging situation," Noble said.
Steve Pomerantz, a former FBI investigator who consults for Jewish organizations, 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."
Some Jewish organizational officials have raised concerns in the past about David Szady, the senior FBI counterintelligence official overseeing the probe, and whether he targeted Jews inside the agency. A JTA investigation in September linked Szady to at least one case where a former CIA official, who is Jewish, sued the FBI and CIA for religious discrimination.
"He's bad, very bad," one senior Jewish organizational executive said in that report.
Pomerantz said he had never seen anything to suggest that Szady is anti-Semitic. In any case, he said, the idea that an individual could hijack the nation's premier law enforcement agency for a personal agenda was far-fetched.
"The FBI is not suicidal," he said. "They are not taking on AIPAC lightly or without full knowledge that this is a powerful organization seen positively by this administration."