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At Critical Time for Israel Lobby, Probe Takes a More Serious Turn

A federal prosecutor’s decision to bring an investigation involving the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to a grand jury is, at the least, an unwanted distraction at a critical time for the top Israel lobby — and some worry that it could hamper the organization’s effectiveness. FBI agents searched AIPAC’s headquarters here Wednesday, seizing files associated with two senior staffers who were interviewed in August amid allegations that a classified Pentagon document was leaked and passed on to Israel.

The agents also served subpoenas on four other senior staffers to appear before a grand jury later this month. The four were Howard Kohr, the group’s executive director; Richard Fishman, the managing director; Renee Rothstein, the communications director; and Raphael Danziger, the research director.

Though AIPAC in past months had sought to portray the investigation as dying down, sources told JTA that federal investigators have interviewed several former AIPAC employees in recent weeks.

AIPAC officials deny that any staff member has done anything wrong.

“Neither AIPAC nor any member of our staff has broken any law,” AIPAC said in a statement. “We are fully cooperating with the governmental authorities. We believe any court of law or grand jury will conclude that AIPAC employees have always acted legally, properly and appropriately.”

But the grand jury deliberations will preoccupy key AIPAC staffers at a time that Israel’s government is seeking administration and congressional support for renewed talks with the Palestinians and ahead of a planned, controversial withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

“It is obviously a very serious matter,” said Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a former prosecutor. “It does not necessarily mean there will be indictments or that we know who the targets are, but a grand jury has a great deal of power, they can call witnesses, documents, people who go can’t bring lawyers — it’s usually all very exhausting.”

Officials from other American Jewish organizations continued to stand by AIPAC, and expressed outrage over the course of the investigation.

“The behavior is very disturbing, that 10 guys raid an organization that has always been willing to cooperate,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, of which AIPAC is a member. “The pattern here has the appearance of being problematic — behavior that has been going on months, if not years.”

Supporters of the pro-Israel lobby have suggested that the investigation is a witch hunt led by one or two FBI rogues with a history of harassing Jews and Jewish organizations.

Those close to AIPAC vigorously defended its integrity.

“I can never remember a moment when the senior team, from Howard Kohr right down the line, weren’t fully cognitive of what was appropriate and dignified,” said Steve Grossman, AIPAC’s president from 1992-’97. “I cannot think of a single moment when I felt that any information being transmitted or discussed was in any inappropriate. They always understood the art of the appropriate.”

Because of the secret nature of FBI investigations and grand jury procedures, few people know the focus of the search, and whether AIPAC or the two staffers interviewed in August — Steve Rosen, the director of foreign policy issues, and Keith Weissman, the foreign policy deputy director — are even the targets.

AIPAC insiders had been telling people since August that the case seemed to be petering out. Wednesday’s subpoenas and searches upended that notion, and the case is once again front and center for the group.

Most of AIPAC’s senior staff and lay leadership dropped their usual activities Wednesday and Thursday and were preoccupied with the new developments.

Other former AIPAC employees suggested the group could be under investigation for acting as an agent for Israel. Under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, a foreign agent is any individual or group that works under the direction of a foreign government.

AIPAC, however, has always maintained that it represents American supporters of the Jewish state, not Israel itself.

If the grand jury probe leads to indictments and convictions of senior AIPAC staffers, the organization could suffer damage, a top Washington lobby watcher said.

“If it turns out that AIPAC staffers were involved in illegal activities, it will hurt AIPAC’s reputation on the Hill,” said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “It will present a problem in terms of people having to deal with them.”

What ensues depends on whether those at the center of any emerging scandal acted as rogues or were part of a pattern, Noble said.

“AIPAC is a powerful lobbying group, it does have a certain amount of capital, but that can be used up quickly in a really damaging situation,” Noble said.

A former top Justice Department official suggested that going to a grand jury meant the investigation had become adversarial.

“You can’t automatically sound the alarm, but more often than not it means that they don’t believe” that those under investigation have been “totally cooperative,” said Bill Mateja, a former U.S. Attorney in Texas who until last month was the top federal corporate fraud official.

Less often, Mateja said, a U.S. attorney will refer a matter to a grand jury simply to wrap it up, “crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s.”

Mateja said it was significant that Weissman and Rosen were not among those subpoenaed.

Levenson said targets of a probe almost never appear before a grand jury in the early stages of the investigation.

“Usually the people who are brought in at the initial stages are designated as witnesses, rather than targets,” she said. “You work from the outside in. The targets are the people in the middle of the bull’s-eye.”

When investigators first arrived at AIPAC’s offices in August, seizing computer files and interviewing Rosen and Weissman, many suggested that AIPAC was secondary to an investigation into Larry Franklin, a Pentagon employee suspected of passing the group classified documents on Iran.

However, insiders say the investigation has appeared to be moving away from Franklin and toward Rosen and AIPAC.

Levenson said the fact that a grand jury has been convened should serve as a warning bell.

Media reports have said AIPAC has been the target of a government investigation for more than two years, and that senior administration officials were made aware of it before President Bush spoke to AIPAC in May.

AIPAC officials confirm that Wednesday’s activities focused on Rosen and Weissman. A spokesman for the attorney representing Rosen and Weissman, who remain active employees at AIPAC, had no comment on the investigation, and an attorney for AIPAC did not return request for comment.

An FBI official confirmed the search but had no further comment, and a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office also would not comment.

Several people said they were surprised that Fishman and Rothstein were subpoenaed. Fishman predominantly is involved in management and fund raising, and Rothstein is best known for coordinating AIPAC’s policy conferences.

Steve Pomerantz, a former FBI investigator who consults for Jewish organizations, said the nature of the subpoenas suggests that FBI investigators know what they’re looking for.

“This is not a fishing expedition,” he said. “It’s clear to me they have some specific information which is leading them in a specific direction.”

A grand jury investigation would allow the U.S. Attorney’s Office to compel witnesses to answer questions, without a lawyer present and on the record. Witnesses could be offered immunity from prosecution if they believe their answers would incriminate them, Pomerantz said.

The AIPAC investigation had seemed to be dormant for months, with some speculating that it was put on hold because of the presidential election. In the meantime, AIPAC had garnered strong support from lawmakers and American Jewish leaders, even using the investigation in its fund-raising drive.

Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser and nominee for secretary of state, spoke to AIPAC’s national summit in Florida in October.

Some Jewish organizational officials have raised concerns in the past about David Szady, the senior FBI counterintelligence official overseeing the probe, and whether he targeted Jews inside the agency.

Pomerantz said he had never seen anything to suggest that Szady is anti-Semitic. In any case, he said, the idea that an individual could hijack the nation’s premier law enforcement agency for a personal agenda was far-fetched.

“The FBI is not suicidal,” he said. “They are not taking on AIPAC lightly or without full knowledge that this is a powerful organization seen positively by this administration.”

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