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Jewish Journal

Is FBI Watching Other Groups?

by Matthew E. Berger

September 9, 2004 | 8:00 pm

New twists and turns in the case of alleged wrongdoing by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have left many in the Jewish community baffled.

A week after allegations first broke suggesting that AIPAC was involved in the exchange of classified information from the Pentagon to Israeli officials, new reports suggest FBI investigators have been monitoring the pro-Israel lobby for more than two years.

The first question many in the Jewish community are asking is, "Why?"

"We're pitching in the dark," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "We haven't seen a shred of evidence."

Much remains unknown about the origins of the investigation, hurting Jewish groups' ability to respond and defend one of the most prominent organizations in the community.

While they work to exonerate AIPAC in the public eye, Jewish leaders say they also must make sure the issue won't affect the way they do business. Groups worry that they, too, could be targeted for investigation or left to deal with potentially changed perceptions of the organized American Jewish community.

Jewish leaders said talks are ongoing as to new ways to defend AIPAC and the Jewish community in both public and private contexts.

Quietly, there is deep concern in Jewish circles about the effect the investigation will have, no matter how it plays out, on Jewish groups' ability to function. With the summer ending and many people in Washington returning to work, the next few weeks will be an important test for how the organized Jewish community is perceived in the capital.

"It really has done a considerable amount of harm, no matter what the outcome is," said Barry Jacobs, director of strategic studies at the American Jewish Committee.

Chief among the concerns is whether other Jewish entities might be under investigation without their knowledge, or are being monitored in relation to this case.

"If they are watching AIPAC, how many other Jewish organizations are they watching as well?" asked Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).

Confident they have nothing to hide, Jewish leaders say they won't change the way they do business. But the case could serve as a guide to reinforce to Jewish officials the need to play by the rules on security matters.

Beyond security concerns, Jewish leaders worry that now they may be seen differently when they walk into a room with governmental officials or people unfamiliar with different groups in the community.

"They don't necessarily know the difference between AIPAC and JCPA and the federations," said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Congressional officials say they'll take a wait-and-see approach toward AIPAC, but are skeptical about the investigation. One Democratic congressional aide said if the issue under scrutiny was a policy discussion about Iran, as has been reported, the line between legal and illegal dialogue is pretty thin.

Publicly, Jewish leaders remain solidly behind AIPAC. Several Jewish organizations have released statements supporting the work AIPAC has done over the years, and most others have expressed similar thoughts when asked by reporters.

AIPAC is one of the best-known Jewish organizations in the country, respected for its strong ties to government officials, especially members of Congress. While some Jewish groups resent AIPAC's ability to set the Jewish community's agenda on Middle East matters, or don't always agree with its tactics, there is strong sentiment that any negative attention for AIPAC will hurt all Jewish groups' efforts.

Some Jewish leaders say the initial feeling in the community was that it was better not to speak out -- not because of a lack of support for AIPAC but in hopes of minimizing media coverage of the story. But now that more than 300 articles already have been written on the issue in American newspapers, that thinking has changed.

Jewish leaders now are minimizing the investigation, suggesting it can't be of real merit because it has been going on for two years without arrests. They also note that if there were merit to the case it's unlikely that President Bush and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice would have addressed the group after the investigation was launched. Rice reportedly was aware of the investigation.

If the FBI is pursuing an intelligence investigation, as is believed, and not a criminal investigation, it's hard to know what launched it. The guidelines for that type of investigation are classified, a former senior FBI official said.

He said it would be normal for the investigation to go on for a long time without arrests, though it would have be to reviewed and adjudicated internally at the FBI or Justice Department.

"AIPAC is not a soft target," the official said. "To launch an investigation against AIPAC, you are going to have to have some credible information to go with it."

Once an investigation is launched, its direction can be tailored by people who might be out to prove -- because of bias or in the interest of catching a big fish -- that AIPAC acted illegally, Jewish leaders said.

There also is concern that the saga may not have a succinct end.

It may be difficult to learn when the investigation into AIPAC is completed, if no charges are filed, and its exact origins -- information Jewish leaders say would be useful in clearing the name of AIPAC and the community in general.

"I don't think there is a great deal of trust in an investigation in this political climate," said Rosenthal of the JCPA. "I hope we find out the facts and find out why someone would start this story."

For now, theories abound. Some suggest anti-Semitic or anti-Israel entities within the government are propelling the investigation forward or leaking it to the media. Others suggest that opponents of the war in Iraq are trying to tie some of its key architects -- so-called "neoconservatives" in the Pentagon -- to Israel and to possible dual loyalties.

AIPAC is hoping to weather the storm by proving its strength as an organization. In an appeal to contributors Tuesday, AIPAC leaders said decisionmakers in Washington will look at AIPAC's financial strength to gauge its overall viability.

"We cannot abide any suggestion that American citizens should be perceived as being involved in illegal activities simply for seeking to participate in the decisions of their elected leaders, or the officials who work for them," read the letter, signed by AIPAC's president, Bernice Manocherian, and executive director, Howard Kohr. "That is our right as citizens of the greatest democracy in the history of mankind. That is a right we will proudly exercise. That is a right we will staunchly defend."

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