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U.S. Probe of Ex-aipac Staffers Focusing on Alleged Conversations

Conversations that two top American Israel Public Affairs Committee staffers allegedly had with a Washington Post reporter and an Israeli diplomat appear to be a focus of a U.S. government investigation that could lead to espionage charges against the two. In addition, information garnered during the investigation into alleged leaks from a Pentagon analyst to the two former AIPAC staffers suggests the FBI began probing AIPAC officials just before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

There is mounting evidence that the government plans to indict Steve Rosen, AIPAC’s former policy director, and Keith Weissman, its former senior Iran analyst.

The pro-Israel lobby fired the two men last month, citing new information.

But AIPAC is continuing to pay the men’s attorneys, incurring legal costs that one source says have reached $1 million. Rosen is being represented by Abbe Lowell, one of Washington’s top lawyers.

Howard Kohr, the organization’s executive director, told staff in a recent conference call that he fired Rosen and Weissman on the advice of Nathan Lewin, the attorney the organization hired to deal with the case, JTA has learned. Lewin came across the information in the course of reviewing the government’s case. Kohr told his staff that Lewin did not reveal the nature of the information, according to sources.

The crux of the government’s case, multiple sources say, is Weissman’s meeting with Larry Franklin, a mid-level Pentagon Iran analyst, on July 21, 2004, outside a Nordstrom’s outlet in the Pentagon City mall in Arlington, Va.

Franklin allegedly warned Weissman that Iranian agents in predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq planned to kidnap, torture and kill American and Israeli agents in the region.

Weissman didn’t realize that Franklin apparently had been cooperating with the FBI for several months and was being used in what is believed to have been a sting against AIPAC staffers, sources said.

Weissman immediately informed his superiors at AIPAC, who relayed the information to the White House, the sources said.

Rosen and Weissman then called Naor Gilon, who heads the political desk at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, and Glenn Kessler, the State Department correspondent for the Washington Post, the sources said.

The FBI is believed to have co-opted Franklin a year earlier, after observing a lunchtime meeting he had with Rosen and Weissman at Tivoli, a restaurant in Arlington.

In a criminal charge sheet filed earlier this month against Franklin, the government said that over lunch, Franklin verbally related top-secret information to two U.S. citizens. JTA has confirmed the two were Rosen and Weissman.

The FBI apparently taped the July 21, 2004, conversation that Weissman and Rosen had with Kessler, the Washington Post reporter, according to sources. Rosen and Weissman got in touch with the White House and Kessler because they wanted to get the information out as soon as possible, sources said. Franklin told the AIPAC staffers that he was giving them the information because they had better connections than he did.

In the exchange, Rosen, Weissman and Kessler joked about “not getting in trouble” over the information, according to sources.

Rosen said that “at least we have no Official Secrets Act,” according to sources. Acquaintances say that was a standard Rosen line, distinguishing the United States from other nations — among them Britain — that criminalize the receipt of classified information.

U.S. law is clear about assigning criminal penalties for leaking classified information, but it is murky when it comes to receiving such information.

Prosecutors seem likely to allege that the conversation with Kessler and the comment about an “Official Secrets Act” prove Rosen and Weissman knew the information was classified, according to sources familiar with the FBI interrogations.

That’s where the conversation with Gilon comes in. While the simple receipt of classified information is hard to prosecute, relaying it to a foreign official may violate the 1917 Espionage Act, which deals with obtaining classified information “to the advantage of any foreign nation.”

It’s not clear how truthful the information Franklin relayed in the Pentagon City meeting was, and Weissman and Rosen, to whom Weissman had relayed the information, have claimed they didn’t know the information was classified.

Franklin later broke off cooperation with the FBI and was arrested earlier this month on charges of leaking classified information.

Franklin is due to appear at a preliminary hearing on May 27. His lawyer suggested he will plead not guilty.

Franklin’s lawyer, Plato Cacheris, would not otherwise comment; neither would Weissman’s lawyer, John Lassikas, or Lowell, Rosen’s attorney.

The FBI declined comment, as did the office of Paul McNulty, the federal attorney in Virginia who is prosecuting the case against Franklin and who may indict Rosen and Weissman as early as next month, according to sources close to the case.

The New York Times reported Saturday that the FBI wanted to speak to four journalists who had information about the case, including one who worked for a major newspaper.

Kessler, who did not publish a story with the leaked information, declined to comment on his news gathering.

AIPAC also maintained its official silence. When the organization fired Rosen and Weissman last month it said it was because of “recently learned information and the conduct AIPAC expects of its employees.”

If the government does plan to pursue espionage charges against the two former AIPAC staffers, it could be a stretch, according to legal experts.

The language of the 1917 Espionage Act emphasizes solicitation — its first sentence describes a transgressor as someone who pursues “information with intent.” Yet it was Franklin who allegedly told Weissman that he had new information and suggested the Pentagon City meeting. Sources say attorneys for the two men will argue entrapment.

A former close associate of Rosen confirmed that he routinely tells his sources that he doesn’t want them to do or say anything that would risk their careers.

The Espionage Act also emphasizes injury to the United States, yet Gilon — the alleged recipient of the information from Rosen and Weissman — remains at his Washington post eight months after the case first made headlines when FBI agents raided AIPAC headquarters last Aug. 27. The Israeli Embassy would not comment.

The initial conversation between Franklin, Rosen and Weissman in June 2003 — the one that apparently led the FBI to move in on Franklin — dealt overwhelmingly with an unclassified memo on the Bush administration’s Iran policy, sources close to the case said.

In its charge sheet against Franklin, the FBI mentions top-secret information about a threat against U.S. troops in Iraq. Sources close to the case say Weissman and Rosen have told investigators that they do not recall hearing that tidbit in their first meeting with Franklin, suggesting it could have been made in passing and was not their central interest.

The United States traditionally has been hesitant to prosecute those who receive classified information. The Nixon administration, after failing legally to prevent The New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers, reportedly considered prosecuting the paper after it published the classified documents relating to the Vietnam War. But it backed off because of First Amendment considerations.

Just as prosecuting a journalist for mining a source for classified information could chill reporting, prosecuting Rosen and Weissman could crimp lobbyists and advocates for Jewish organizations and others.

The coin of a successful lobbyist is inside information, and Rosen’s success in his 23 years at AIPAC was his vast array of contacts, valued by AIPAC board members, members of Congress and officials in four administrations.

Many Jewish organizational leaders meet routinely with Israeli officials and relay information they might not even know is classified.

Indeed, it may be less the quality of the information Rosen and Weissman gathered and more their closeness with power that drew the FBI’s attention. Sources close to the case say the evidence suggests that the FBI targeted Rosen starting in early September 2001, when The New York Times reported that President Bush was contemplating a meeting with the late Palestinian Authority president, Yasser Arafat.

Condoleezza Rice, then Bush’s national security adviser, was furious at the leak and demanded a clampdown on leakers. The administration’s determination to keep its deliberations secret intensified after the terrorist attacks days later on New York and Washington.

That, say sources, drew investigators to Rosen, who in the early 1980s had transformed AIPAC from primarily a congressional lobby to one that excelled in access to the executive branch.

AIPAC has returned to its congressional roots since the case broke, sources say, but supporters worry that its effectiveness in lobbying any branch of government could be impaired if the case goes to trial.

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