AIPAC, Espionage, & legal sabotage: Has AIPAC spy trial been derailed?
CBS broke the story three years ago: a high-ranking Pentagon analyst had been caught handing over highly classified information to a foreign government – sensitive intelligence about al-Qaeda, U.S. policy deliberations regarding Iran, and other top-secret information of particular interest to his two American handlers. The spy’s native-born confederates, top officials of one of Washington’s most powerful lobbying groups, passed America’s most closely guarded secrets directly to foreign government officials in hurried meetings in empty restaurants, outside a train station, and over the phone, whispering their treason in some of Washington’s darkest corners so as not to leave a paper trail of purloined documents.
As clever as they were, however, these spymasters apparently outwitted themselves, because the FBI’s counterintelligence unit was on to them from the very beginning: the two core members of the spy nest had been under surveillance for years, along with the foreign officials who operated out of their Washington embassy. The FBI had everything on tape, and they let the Pentagon mole weave enough rope to hang himself with until they moved in on him: confronted with his treason, the mole – the Pentagon’s top Iran analyst, working directly under then-underscretary of defense for policy Douglas J. Feith – agreed to wear a wire to future meetings with his handlers. An extensive record of treason was documented, until indictments were issued and charges brought against all three. When the news first broke, it was a national scandal – and then the story sank like a stone, for three solid years, while the extensive litigation surrounding the case played out.
The analyst pled guilty to espionage and was sentenced to 13 years in prison and a substantial fine – with time off for his cooperation in the future trial of his two ex-cohorts. The trial, as I’ve said, has been delayed for nearly three years and is scheduled to finally begin on Jan. 14. But I wouldn’t count on that happening: the trial has been delayed on several occasion through the years, and recent developments augur ill for the speedy resolution of this case.
You might think this is odd: after all, it seems like an open-and-shut case. With so much evidence accumulated by government prosecutors, one would think this would be a cakewalk. And it would be, if the recipient of this stolen intelligence weren’t Israel. It would be, except the two key figures in this cloak and dagger episode were top officials of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a Washington powerhouse whose former chief lobbyist once boasted to the New Yorker‘s Jeffrey Goldberg: “You see this napkin? In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin.”
So said Steve Rosen, the spark plug behind AIPAC’s legendary lobbying success – the very same Steve Rosen indicted for espionage, along with his top Iran specialist, Keith Weissman, on Aug. 4, 2005, and whose trial is scheduled for Jan. 14, 2008.
Rosen and Weissman contacted, cultivated, and befriended Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin for the specific purpose of culling classified information from him. They even promised to put in a good word for him with top Washington officials as a partial reward for his betrayal. However, Franklin, a committed neoconservative ideologue, didn’t need much material incentive: he was convinced that U.S. policy in the Middle East wasn’t nearly as pro-Israel as it ought to be, and he was particularly concerned about Iran.
Starting in the late summer of 2002 and continuing until the late summer of 2004, these three spun their web of subversion, gathering vital intelligence and passing it on to Israeli embassy officials. And the FBI has a great deal of this on its surveillance tapes, so much of it – “four years of tracking AIPAC staffers,” according to the Jerusalem Post – that the footage could be made into a reality show with a unique “spy versus spy” theme.
The defense, in what would normally be an open-and-shut case, has been struggling frantically to avoid a trial at all costs. That’s understandable: after all, the FBI has the whole thing – the entire course of their crimes against America – on record. The verbal transmission of classified information, the elaborate arrangements to avoid detection, the open boasting of the analyst’s two handlers that they had a live one on the hook, it’s all there: raw, naked treason. Rather than come up against the incontrovertible facts, the defense has tried hard to divert the energies of the court away from actually bringing this to trial, in the hopes that the administration will back down and drop the charges.
The defense strategy has been to constantly up the ante, daring government prosecutors to present the full scope of the recorded evidence in open court – and thus compromise the sources and methods of U.S. clandestine services, such as the FBI’s counterintelligence unit. In addition, the nature and specific contents of various U.S. secrets stolen by the Rosen-Weissman-Franklin spy ring and transmitted to the Israelis could come out in open court.
This is why the government has made several attempts to mask the evidence, proposing that testimony made available to the public would be presented in a kind of code, but that was rejected byJudge T.S. Ellis, for the most part. A mediation process was set up, and for months the lawyers have been haggling over what is admissible evidence and what has to be kept secret in the national interest – with the defense constantly pressuring the court to be as liberal as possible, and government prosecutors arguing for secrecy.
Now there has been a major development on this front. No one took seriously the defense’s motion, made a few months ago, that they be allowed to subpoena Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, National Security Council chief Stephen Hadley, and a whole platoon of government officials and former officials. The motion was made on the grounds that these officials, too, had transmitted classified information to AIPAC, and that this is proof that such behavior was and is routine, part of the normal way of doing business in the world of Washington lobbyists. The defendants’ case has always been that they have a First Amendment right to commit espionage, and that their indictment amounted to a government assault on their right to “free speech.” Gee, too bad the Rosenbergs never thought of this unique rationalization for treason, although I doubt it would’ve gotten them anywhere. The AIPAC defendants, however, may have more luck in this department…
No judge had ever allowed such a thing, at least in recent memory, and no one expected Judge Ellis to look favorably on this request. That he granted the defense motion in all but a few cases is bad news for the government – and good news for the Israel lobby, which may just be spared the embarrassment of having its essential nature as a fifth column for Israel exposed to the light of day.
In addition to Rice, Wolfowitz, and Hadley, the following can expect to be served with a summons to appear at a trial that may never happen: Larry Franklin’s boss, Douglas J. Feith, former undersecretary of defense for policy; Elliott Abrams, neocon par excellence and Iran-Contra alumnus, who served as Bush’s “deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy”; Kenneth Pollack, a former National Security Council adviser to Bill Clinton and author of the now infamously influential book The Threatening Storm, which convinced so many liberal Democrats to support the invasion of Iraq; Marc Grossman, former undersecretary of state for political affairs; Marc Sievers, chief political affairs officer at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv and one of Rice’s chief advisers on Iraqi affairs; David Satterfield, a political officer at our Tel Aviv embassy; William Burns, the American ambassador to Russia; Lawrence Silverman, currently a deputy chief at the American embassy in the Slovak Republic; Matthew Bryza, a deputy assistant secretary of state; and Michael Makovsky, a former staff member of the Office of Special Plans, the policy shop where the “intelligence” pointing to Saddam Hussein’s fabled “weapons of mass destruction” was cooked up into talking points. Franklin also served in that policy shop.
The idea that the U.S. government is going to allow this is absurd. Rather than expose the entire Israeli covert operation in its midst and permit testimony that would dramatize how much access the Israelis already have to our officials and the policy-making process, the Bush administration now has an ideal excuse to shut this case down. Rice wouldn’t even show up to a congressional hearing to answer questions about prewar intelligence, and she similarly tried to defy the 9/11 Commission on the grounds of “executive privilege.” In spite of her expressed willingness to “cooperate with our legal system,” I fully expect her to show the same disdain for Judge Ellis’ court.
The recent book by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt documenting the existence of a powerful Israel lobby has generated a storm of controversy, with the Lobby’s advocates smearing the two professors as “anti-Semites” and the more reasonable members of the foreign policy community at least open to the argument that undue reverence for the Lobby – and its political clout – has distorted the policy-making process, perhaps fatally. Yet even Mearsheimer and Walt go out of their way to emphasize that the Lobby is “not a cabal” and “not a conspiracy,” and, although they mention the AIPAC spy case briefly, they draw no conclusions from it. Perhaps they thought they had enough of a burden in making the case they did make, without sinking the knife in deeper. Yet this case shows that at the very core of the Lobby a cabal was operating, which was – and, for all we know, still is – engaged in a conspiracy to commit espionage on behalf of a foreign power.
This is undeniable to anyone who has followed the details of this case, and the embarrassment of a public trial would have rendered it irrefutable in the public mind: AIPAC would be ruined, its name and image forever associated with the stealing of U.S. secrets. Almost certainly a trial would force AIPAC to register as an agent of a foreign power, namely Israel, in which case its political effectiveness would be seriously impaired, and for all intents and purposes ended.
There is going to be tremendous pressure now, coming from the White House as well as the Lobby, to quash this trial before it ruins them all. The odds are that this effort will succeed, if only because the case has slipped beneath the media’s radar. It has been going on, after all, for nearly three long years, during which time the original memory of the FBI’s two raids on AIPAC’s Washington office and the sensational confession and conviction of Franklin have faded in the public mind. Even the nearly unprecedented news that a judge has ordered such a personage as Rice to give testimony in this case hasn’t garnered all that much notice. If the case dies, it will die a largely silent death. If it ever comes to trial, however, it will be the show of the decade, much more entertaining than anything remotely promised by the trial of Scooter Libby.
Rice’s refusal to testify, and similar refusals by some or all of the currently serving U.S. officials, could torpedo the trial once and for all, or at least delay it indefinitely as the government appeals the judge’s decision. Douglas Feith will never be asked why he was in such a hurry to resign, and Wolfowitz and Hadley will be spared the embarrassment of having to explain how Israeli agents managed to penetrate the Pentagon. The Lobby can breathe a sigh of relief, as can the White House – and, most importantly, from the Israeli point of view, their spy nest can continue to operate without further ado.
After all, you don’t really believe that Franklin is the only neocon fish caught in AIPAC’s web of espionage, do you? The existence of one spy implies the presence of others, and, in this case, it’s a virtual certainty. A public trial would expose the whole network to the blinding light of day, an ugly scene that both Washington and the Israelis would much rather avoid. To obscure the implications of their espionage, the Lobby has done its best to sabotage this case – and it looks like they may have succeeded.