The lobby on trial: Rising concern about the Israel lobby
It seems to have fallen down the memory hole or been consigned to the purgatory of forgotten news stories: the indictment of Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, two top officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). More than three years ago, the news that Rosen, the number-one lobbyist for Israel in Washington, and his sidekick Weissman had been indicted for violating the Espionage Act, for handing over top-secret intelligence to Israeli embassy officials, broke like a thunderclap over official Washington. Today, its echoes have petered out almost entirely, as news of the case has sunk so far beneath the media’s radar that developments in what is an important and fascinating story are no longer reported. I’ll do my best to rectify that.
But first, one has to wonder, why is the veil of silence being drawn over this extraordinary affair? After all, the story involves what Time magazine called “among the most politically charged espionage cases in years” – surely a newsworthy topic. Why no follow-up?
It’s very odd. Don’t forget that AIPAC, the premier pro-Israel lobby in the country and one of the most powerful and feared of Washington’s movers and shakers, was subjected to no less than two humiliating FBI raids on its Washington offices: desks were searched and emptied and computers carted away, while a cordon of agents prevented anyone or anything from leaving or entering the area until the operation was over. All AIPAC employees were, presumably, questioned. You don’t see that kind of action unless there is something very substantial behind it.
Reports that the case originated in an investigation that dates back to the 1990s were backed up by the indictments, which trace the defendants’ treason to meetings with Israeli officials “between in or about April 1999 and continuing until on or about August 27, 2004.”
The Rosen-Weissman case grew out of a comprehensive, long-standing investigation into Israeli covert activities in the U.S., that much is clear. The probe was in place when the astonished FBI counterintelligence squad – engaged in routine surveillance of Rosen, Weissman, and Israeli embassy officials, including Gilon Naor, former head of the political affairs department at the Israeli embassy in Washington – spotted Larry Franklin walking into a luncheon in an Arlington, Va., restaurant. The eavesdropping guardians of our national security were shocked when Franklin, who worked for Douglas Feith at the Pentagon’s policy shop, where he presided over the Iran desk, openly offered to hand over vital intelligence to Gilon, Rosen, and Weissman.
The Feds put a tail on Franklin and recorded his every treasonous act until they were ready to strike, and when they moved, they caught him with a veritable library of classified documents hidden away in his home, some dating back many years – a veritable treasure trove of U.S. secrets. Caught red-handed, and faced with the prospect of a long jail sentence, Franklin agreed to cooperate with the authorities: he wore a wire to his next meeting with his AIPAC overseers, subsequently compiling mountains of incriminating evidence against his co-conspirators.
Franklin pled guilty and was sentenced to 12 years and seven months in prison. His conviction set the stage for the upcoming trial of the AIPAC duo – scheduled to commence Jan. 14 – where he will be a key prosecution witness. It looks like the day the Israel lobby in Washington has dreaded – no less than the two defendants – is finally about to dawn. The three-year delay has been the cardinal achievement of the defense, which has done everything in its power to drag the process nearly to a grinding halt. About the only top government officials they haven’t tried to call in as witnesses – along with a list of Israeli embassy officials that may include Danny Ayalon, the former ambassador – are George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Their subpoena wish-list includes Condi Rice; Stephen Hadley; Richard Armitage; William Burns, U.S. ambassador to Moscow and former chief U.S. envoy to the Middle East; Burns’ former deputy, David Satterfield, who now advises Rice on Iraq; and Anthony Zinni, also a former U.S. Mideast envoy (and a prominent critic of the Lobby).
Another even more successful delaying tactic has been the battle over what to admit as evidence and – more importantly – how to present it to the jury and the public. The long legal battle has focused particularly on the record of the defendants’ perfidy, as so painstakingly recorded for posterity by the FBI’s counterintelligence unit. The government proposed that the presentation of classified material be handled using a complex code, which would have masked the identities of individuals and organizations that figure in the case. The judge , however, vetoed that idea, averring that this would interfere with the right of the defendants to a fully public trial. Now the two sides are involved in a protracted tug-of-war over what evidence to admit, fulfilling the judge’s requirements without endangering the national security of the United States. This process will doubtless continue right up to the scheduled trial date. As one of the few comprehensive news reports of developments in the case put it, there are “numerous closed hearings to come dealing with classified evidence and testimony by experts and government officials. ‘It’s a very laborious, very labor-intensive, very intricate process that requires an enormous amount of work by the court,’ [Abbe D.] Lowell [head of Rosen’s defense team] said in a telephone interview. Like everything else in the case, ‘it’s an adversarial process,’ he added.”
The defense – and, standing behind them, the Lobby – is playing a game of “chicken,” pushing the government to weigh the benefits of going ahead with this case against the potential damage it could do to U.S. national security. The Rosen-Weissman defense team – paid for by AIPAC – is hoping that the government will back down when officials realize that they themselves could be implicated. Secretary Rice, for example, says she doesn’t even know Rosen, never met him, and can’t remember hearing anything about him – we’ll see about that, now won’t we?
It is almost inconceivable that the Justice Department would just drop the charges, after all this effort, but with the Israel lobby you can never take anything like that off the table: it’s just the sort of brazen maneuver they’d glory in pulling off.
Barring that unlikely event, however, it looks like the trial is going to be rather more interesting than any espionage case since Whittaker Chambers faced down Alger Hiss and the mystery of the pumpkin patch papers was unraveled. For one thing, it has a cast of characters that would do justice to any spy thriller: on the one hand we have the voluble, unrepentant Rosen, a committed ideologue who made AIPAC what it is today, pioneering its high-powered lobbying efforts that extend right into the top echelons of U.S. policymaking circles. Convinced that an acquittal is “inevitable,” Rosen is bound and determined to fight to the finish and exonerate his good name and the formerly good name of AIPAC.
On the other hand, we have the far less optimistic Weissman, who, we hear, has undergone a strange transformation and has been seen around Washington wearing a Palestinian-style keffiyeh. The Forward reports that he is now coming out of the closet, so to speak, as a left-winger of sorts, having “decided not to suppress [his] political views any longer.” It seems that, after all that time working for AIPAC and helping to funnel classified information to his Israeli handlers via his contacts with Franklin, he was really a peacenik all along. Weissman has reportedly applied for volunteer positions with Americans for Peace Now and Human Rights Watch — “though,” as the Forward reports, “he was politely turned down, sources say, presumably because of the difficulty in associating with a person under indictment for espionage charges.” Whether this is an attempt to remake himself as a more sympathetic defendant – AIPAC’s “resident leftist” as the Forward portrays Weissman, and thus less likely to fit the profile of an Israeli covert agent – we cannot yet know, but you’ve got to admit that this is going to make for one fascinating trial.
With the publication of John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy in book form, the taboo on a sensitive but increasingly important subject has been lifted. Now, at last, we can talk freely about the sort of influence the Israel lobby has on the formulation of U.S. policy in the Middle East – and the lengths they will go to secure it. However, Mearsheimer and Walt only touch on the supersensitive, still largely verboten subject of Israeli espionage in the U.S., mentioning the Franklin case parenthetically. The Rosen-Weissman trial will bring the dark side of the “special relationship” between Israel and the U.S. into sharp focus – and it isn’t going to be pretty.