AIPAC case: DC grapevine or espionage?

By Carol Eisenberg

March 5, 2008 at 10:28am

What’s a little information-swapping between friends?

America’s most powerful pro-Israel lobby says that’s the currency of everyday life in the nation’s capital. The Justice Department, however, is calling it espionage, and will finally get to make its case next month when two former officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), go on trial in federal court in Alexandria, Va., for allegedly passing classified information about Iran and Iraq to Israeli officials, colleagues and the media.

Steven J. Rosen, former policy director for AIPAC, and Keith Weissman, the lobby’s former Iran specialist, are charged with violating a World War I-era espionage act for sharing what the government calls national defense information “with persons not entitled to receive it,” according to an August, 2005 indictment. The names of the recipients are not disclosed in the indictment, but media reports have identified them as Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler and Naor Gilon, minister-counselor for political affairs in the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

The trial is expected to produce embarrassing revelations about the tight relationships between influence peddlers and government officials. AIPAC, which fired the two officials in 2005, has a particularly close relationship with the Bush White House. The president himself addressed AIPAC members in Washington on May 18, 2004, and Vice President Dick Cheney spoke to the group last year.

But the group’s ties extend across party lines. A 2005 National Journal survey of lawmakers ranked it No. 2 in a list of the 25 most powerful lobbies in Washington - ahead of the AFL-CIO and the National Rifle Association, but behind the American Association of Retired Persons.

And the trial may be even more politically radioactive coming after publication of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, a book which argued that the pro-Israel lobby distorts the public debate about Middle East policy and which has stirred bitter debate.

There’s no denying the list of potential defense witnesses is a Who’s Who of administration officials. Over Justice Department objections, Judge T.S. Ellis III ruled the defense may call Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley, deputy National Security Adviser Elliot Abrams, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; and a dozen other Bush administration foreign policy officials.

The defense aim is to show that information-sharing is a routine part of Washington life, and that the material passed on by Rosen and Weissman was already known by Israeli officials.

It will argue that the two men simply listened to Franklin, and repeated information they heard, doing nothing more than “what members of the media, members of the Washington policy community, lobbyists and members of congressional staffs do perhaps hundreds of times every day,” according to a defense memorandum.

The prosecution plans on calling top and former intelligence officials, including Dale Watson, who headed the FBI’s investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks; William McNair, the former information review officer for the CIA’s directorate of operations; and Brig. Gen. Paul A. Dettmer, assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in the U.S. Air Force, according to court filings.

The prosecution argues that Rosen and Weissman received sensitive information from a mid-level Defense Department analyst, Lawrence A. Franklin, a U.S. Air Force Reserve colonel, whom they met in a series of DC-area restaurants.

Franklin, a Catholic father of five who worked in the office of Douglas Feith, was a minor player in neocon circles who sought to build pressure for a more aggressive administration policy towards Iran, according to The New Yorker. His efforts included meetings with Rosen and Weissman, officials at the Israeli Embassy and efforts to reach out to Iranian dissidents.

In 2001, he and Michael Ledeen, a prominent figure in the Iran-contra scandals of the Reagan administration, met secretly with the Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar in Italy, the man who had brokered Israeli missile sales to Iran in exchange for efforts to free American hostages in Lebanon in the deal that came to be known as Iran-Contra.

Franklin had pleaded guilty to passing government secrets and was given more than 12 years in prison – a sentence likely to be reduced as a result of his cooperation after the upcoming trial. He is being represented by Plato Cacheris, the attorney who represented Fawn Hall, the former secretary to Oliver North, a key player in the hostages-for-arms deal, as well as CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames.

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  • #1.   Institute for Research 03.05.2008

    It is difficult to believe that a trial, which is fair to the defendants, and thorough on the part of the prosecution team, will actually move forward next month.

    1. AIPAC and founder Si Kenen came under extreme scrutiny by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for operating as unregistered foreign agents in the 1960s, but nothing happened.

    2. AIPAC was found by the FBI to have negotiated the first ever US free trade agreement with purloined International Trade Organization documents; the agreement was signed anyway. FBI did not move forward.

    3. AIPAC was found to be coordinating political action committees in violation of its tax exempt status. AIPAC was found to be acting as a PAC, without disclosing donors, the case made it to the Supreme Court, but no action was taken and even that decades old case is still in limbo.

    4. Co-prosecutor Kevin DiGregory has just abandoned the case to take a job in the private sector (reminiscent of the golden parachute of Carol Lam in the US attorney firing scandal).

    5. AG Mukasey has been lobbied publicly by the Wall Street Journal to toss this prosecution, and likely privately from many different sides. The case may already be hobbled and “damaged goods” in the DOJ, which, like the administration, would probably rather see this all go away.

    History would indicate that this is the type of subject that doesn’t get a fair hearing in America. (data cited from the book “Foreign Agents: The American Israel Public Affairs Committee from the 1963 Fulbright Hearings to the 2005 Espionage Scandal”

  • #2.   Nathan Hale 03.08.2008

    They spied on the United States during wartime, passing secret documents to agents of a foreign power. Even AIPAC itself dumped them overboard after listening to selections of their conversations with the Israeli government spy. Meantime, AIPAC must be stripped of its Made In USA camouflage and forced to register as a foreign agency, if not dismantled altogether. This dual loyalty crap has got to end, the AIPAC agents must be completely weeded out of government and subjected to constant, comprehensive scrutiny by our security agencies and law enforcement.

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