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Jewish Journal

Entrapment, Surrender and Silence

by Michael Berenbaum

June 9, 2005 | 8:00 pm

If recent press reports regarding the government case against two former American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) employees are to be believed, then I am increasingly outraged at the government's case, AIPAC's response and the silence of the American Jewish community.

A word of caution is in order: Because grand jury testimony is secret -- or at least should be -- we do not know the full nature of the government's case against these individuals, and will not know it unless an indictment is delivered and they are charged with a specific crime or crimes. But press reports, if they are accurate, point to an outrageous setup of the two and a muteness on the part of our community.

According to recent reports in the Washington Post and Ha'aretz, Keith Weissman, an AIPAC staff member, was told by Lawrence Franklin, a midlevel Pentagon official working in the office of Assistant Secretary of Defense Doug Feith, secret information that the Iranian government had targeted Israeli agents working with the Kurds for death in Iraq. According to the newspapers, he then took that information to his superior in AIPAC, Steven Rosen, who made three calls: two to check out the story and a third to warn the Israelis of risks to their agents in the field.

Given what Weissman was told -- the information turns out to have been false, deliberately so because Franklin had set him up -- Rosen could assume that Israel, an ally of the United States in the region, was working with the full knowledge and consent -- active or tacit -- of the United States. One may presume that the Israeli government or Israeli intelligence would not operate in such a sensitive area of American activity during wartime without finding a way of informing their ally.

Secondly, an American government official working in an office so friendly to Israel would not casually leak such sensitive information. There was a purpose; the information was to be conveyed elsewhere. In short, the Israelis were to be warned.

This is not the Jonathan Pollard case.

Neither Rosen nor Weissman were American government officials who had broken the laws of secrecy, the commitments that come with any level of security clearance, let alone top-secret clearance. They were not agents of a foreign government (although it seems that this is the goal of the U.S. government investigators and prosecutors -- to require Americans Jews working in the U.S.-Israel foreign policy arena to declare themselves foreign agents of Israel). The Israeli government did not pay them for their services. They did not transmit documents.

If press reports are correct, they had acted as conduits for information leaked to them that was designed to save the lives of Israelis working with the consent and knowledge of the United States -- at purposes agreed upon by the United States -- to support American policy and the interests of both the United States and Israel.

Little did they know and less could they imagine that the information given to them was a sting operation by government investigators who already knew Franklin, the American government official, would be charged with criminal misconduct for allegedly mishandling classified documents by removing them from his office and taking them to his home.

Rosen and Weissman were attempting to save lives, not compromise lives or engage in a political vendetta. They had every reason to believe that they were operating with the active consent of the Pentagon, which had given them the information in the first place. According to press reports, they did not solicit the information; they merely listened to what was told them.

AIPAC initially gave these two officials administrative leave, continued them on salary and agreed to pay for their defense. They were working for AIPAC and trying to save Israeli lives, trying to further the alliance of the United States and Israel.

It seems that over the past month -- in advance of its much-heralded and highly successful conference that featured U.S. government officials from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on down -- AIPAC caved and fired these officials. It has told its key supporters that it will continue to fund their defense, but it has left them to fend for themselves economically at a time when both men will be preoccupied with their own defense and virtually unemployable.

Both of these men have made important contributions to the U.S.-Israel relationship -- Weissman, an expert on Iran, and Rosen, a principal architect of the U.S.-Israel strategic cooperative relationship for more than 20 years.

And why the silence of the American Jewish leadership, which should be outraged by government entrapment on civil liberties grounds, and which should be furious that the bait the government chose to use was Israeli lives?

I lived in Washington when Pollard was arrested, and was the editor of a Jewish newspaper who joined the chorus of condemnation of both Pollard and the Israeli government for their ineptitude and stupidity in using an American Jew as an agent. It sent a chill throughout Washington officialdom, especially among a new generation of committed Jews, supporters of Israel, who were working throughout the government in every level of government service and in every agency.

This is different.

Weissman did what any person in his position is supposed to do. He went to his superior with important, albeit secret, information that purported to tell him that Israeli lives were at risk -- immediate, tangible risk, information given to him in a quasi-official fashion, but what he presumed to be a most reliable source. And Rosen acted on such information to save the lives of agents working in direct alliance and with the presumed consent of the United States.

This was not a question of dual loyalty or conflicting loyalty, but of saving lives. From the perspective of Jewish tradition, if press reports are to be believed, they acted honorably in a manner prescribed by tradition, and Jews should not be adverse to defending those traditions, affirming those values and to supporting these men.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and an adjunct professor of theology at the University of Judaism.

 

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