Espionage Case Opens Against ex-AIPAC Agents

AIPAC agents charged with passing sensitive information on to Israel, defense to argue this is “routine” in American foreign policy concerning Israel. Does Israel Conduct Covert Action in America?

Steven J. Rosen, left, with his lawyer, Abbe Lowell, is charged with violating the World War I-era Espionage Act. Kevin Wolf/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — From its headquarters near the Capitol, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, has for decades played an important though informal role in the formation of the United States government’s Middle East policy.

As part of AIPAC’s mission to lobby the government on behalf of Israel, its officials assiduously maintain contact with senior policymakers, lawmakers, diplomats and journalists. Those conversations are typical of the unseen world of information trading in Washington, where people customarily and insistently ask each other, “So, what are you hearing?”

But a trial scheduled for late April in federal court in Alexandria, Va., threatens to expose and upend that system. Moreover, the case comes with issues of enormous sensitivity and emotion, notably the nature and extent of the ways American Jewish supporters of Israel try to influence the United States government.

Two former senior analysts for AIPAC, Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, are charged with violating the World War I-era Espionage Act when they told colleagues, journalists and Israeli Embassy officials information about Iran and Iraq they had learned from talking to high-level United States policymakers.

Keith Weissman is also charged with violating the Espionage Act. Kevin Wolf/Associated PressUnless the government suddenly backs down, the courtroom will become the stage for an extraordinary parade of top officials being forced to testify about some of the unseen ways American foreign policy is made.

Over the strong objections of the Justice Department, the judge in the case ruled that the defense may call as witnesses Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state; Stephen J. Hadley, the White House national security adviser; Elliot Abrams, a deputy national security adviser; Richard L. Armitage, former deputy secretary of state; Paul D. Wolfowitz, former deputy defense secretary; and a dozen other Bush administration foreign policy officials.

The defense’s goal is to demonstrate that the kind of conversations in the indictment are an accepted, if not routine, way that American policy on Israel and the Middle East has been formulated for years.

Mr. Rosen’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, said the case raised “strange and troubling issues, notably the decision to target Aipac for common and proper behavior that goes on in Washington every day.”

Mr. Lowell and John Nassikas III, who represents Mr. Weissman, plan to confront Ms. Rice and the other witnesses with explicit examples of exchanges in which they provided similar sensitive information to AIPAC staff members as part of the regular back-channel world of diplomacy.

Although AIPAC has not been charged in the case, the trial, to be heard by Judge T. S. Ellis III, will revolve around how the group, renowned for its effectiveness in presenting Israel’s case, exerts its influence in Congress and, especially in recent years, on the executive branch.

For AIPAC and to some extent the larger pro-Israel community in the United States, the charges against Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman could raise what they regard as an unfair, even toxic question about whether some American Jews hold a loyalty to Israel that matches or exceeds their loyalty to the United States.

The trial will also take place only months after the eruption of an intense public debate about the American Jewish supporters of Israel that was occasioned by the publication of an article and book, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” The authors, John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University, argue that the pro-Israel lobby successfully suppresses legitimate criticism of Israel and uses its influence to distort the public debate about Middle East policy.

Their views produced a ferocious counterattack in magazines and scholarly journals in which both their facts and conclusions were challenged.

The trial will as well be shadowed by the case of Jonathan Pollard, a civilian analyst for the Navy who was sentenced to life in prison in 1985 for spying on behalf of Israel. There is no question that the charges against Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman are vastly different than the actions of Mr. Pollard, who knowingly acted as a spy by stealing sensitive documents and passing them covertly to Israeli agents.

The emotional resonance of his case continues, however, because it directly raised the notion of dual loyalty and because his supporters think he has been denied parole to satisfy a national security community that was deeply angered over Israel’s spying on the United States.

Avi Beker, who teaches what he calls “Jewish diplomacy” at the University of Tel Aviv and Georgetown University, said that while the two cases are greatly different, “they evoke a parallel psychological effect” both among American Jews who have an enduring anxiety about the dual loyalty charge and those who are suspicious of the Israel lobby.

Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman each face one charge of conspiracy to communicate national defense information, and Mr. Rosen faces an additional charge of aiding and abetting the conspiracy.

Justice Department officials would not discuss the case. But at the time of the indictment in 2005, Paul J. McNulty, then the chief prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia, said, “Those not authorized to receive classified information must resist the temptation to acquire it, no matter what their motivation may be.”

According to the indictment, the defendants received sensitive information from at least three government sources that was passed on to journalists and Israeli officials. One of the sources was Lawrence A. Franklin, a Pentagon analyst who has pleaded guilty to passing on sensitive information to a journalist and an Israeli diplomat. Mr. Franklin has been sentenced to more than 12 years in prison.

After Mr. Franklin was arrested in 2004, he became a cooperating witness for the government and, while wearing a wire, met with Mr. Weissman and told him that Iran had learned that Israeli agents were in northern Iraq. Mr. Weissman, according to the indictment, told Mr. Rosen, and they both relayed that information to an Israeli diplomat and intelligence officer and an unnamed Washington Post reporter later identified as Glenn Kessler.

The other two sources of information received by Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman are identified in the indictment only as Government Official-1 and Government Official-2. Kenneth Pollack, who was the National Security Council specialist on the Persian Gulf, said in an interview that he thought he was Government Official-1 because on Dec. 12, 2000, he had had lunch with Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman.

Mr. Pollack, who is no longer with the government, said that he told government investigators, “I never revealed any classified information to Rosen and Weissman, and I never revealed any information that would be harmful to the security or interests of the United States.”

The indictment also charges that Mr. Rosen received information in January 2002 from Government Official-2, who has been identified by people involved in the case as David M. Satterfield, who has since been promoted to the post of the State Department’s senior adviser on Iraq. A spokesman for Mr. Satterfield would not comment.

Mr. Lowell, the defense lawyer, said there had been no explanation as to why neither Mr. Pollack nor Mr. Satterfield seemed to be in any legal jeopardy for imparting information to Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman that became part of the charges against them when they passed that information on to others.

AIPAC, which spends nearly $2 million annually in lobbying, according to public filings, has worked to distance itself from the defendants.

AIPAC dismissed them in early 2004 after federal prosecutors in Virginia played part of surreptitiously recorded conversations for Nathan Lewin, a veteran Washington lawyer representing AIPAC . The tapes were of conversations in which Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman passed on information about the Middle East they had received from government officials to Mr. Kessler at The Washington Post.

Mr. Lewin, who has had a long history as a trusted counsel for various Jewish organizations, traveled back to AIPAC ‘s headquarters near Capitol Hill from Alexandria that day and advised the group to fire the men.

The Aipac spokesman on the Rosen-Weissman matter, Patrick Dorton, said at the time that the two men were dismissed because their behavior “did not comport with standards that Aipac expects of its employees.” He said recently that Aipac still held that view of their behavior.

Mr. Lewin would not discuss what he heard that day. But others familiar with the case said the defendants’ boastful tone, which may have been used to suggest that their knowledge reflected their great influence within the administration, made the conversations potentially embarrassing.

//New York Times

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Posted in Bush Adminisration, Federal government, Intelligence, Legal, State Department, US - Israel relations

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