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Pre-trial Strategies Suggest Unwanted Exposure of Aipac’s Lobbying Practices

Federal investigators are asking questions about ties between lay leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and two former staffers charged in a classified-information case. The renewed investigation comes as Viet Dinh, a former assistant U.S. attorney general and principal architect of the Patriot Act, argued in a brief on behalf of Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, the former AIPAC staffers, that the case against them lacks merit because it violates their First Amendment rights.

Taken together, the defense and government actions suggest the shape of the trial to start April 25: The defense will argue that culling and distributing inside government information was a routine lobbying activity.

It also anticipates the media event AIPAC insiders have said they fear: One that picks apart, in a public forum, exactly how AIPAC goes about its business.

No one suggests that AIPAC’s activities are in any way illegal, and the prosecutor in the case already has made clear that the organization is not suspected of wrongdoing. But AIPAC closely guards its lobbying practices, and is loath to reveal them to the general Washington community.

In his brief, Dinh, now a law professor and attorney in private practice, argues that the First Amendment protects the practice of seeking information from executive branch officials.

“This is what members of the media, members of the Washington policy community, lobbyists and members of congressional staffs do perhaps hundreds of times a day,” Dinh argues, describing the acts alleged in the indictment against Rosen, the former AIPAC foreign policy director, and Weissman, a former Iran specialist.

FBI agents’ questions to other former AIPAC staffers interviewed in recent weeks suggest that the government is trying to assess whether receiving and disseminating classified information was routine at AIPAC.

The former staffers told JTA that the FBI agents asked questions about Rosen’s relationship with three past AIPAC presidents — Robert Asher of Chicago, Larry Weinberg of Beverly Hills, Calif., and Edward Levy of Detroit, as well as Newton Becker, an influential AIPAC donor from Los Angeles.

The former employees all spoke on condition of anonymity, because the FBI has told them not to speak with the media.

The office of U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty, who is trying the case, would not comment.

Weinberg, reached Tuesday, refused to comment. Levy was on vacation and could not be reached, and Asher and Becker did not respond to messages.

The new round of FBI questions is important because the indictment, based on a World War I-era espionage statute, rests not simply on receipt of the allegedly classified information but on its further dissemination.

The indictment, handed down last August, alleges that Rosen and Weissman relayed the information — on Iran and on Al-Qaida — to fellow AIPAC staffers, journalists and diplomats at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

Establishing whether Rosen also briefed board members on the allegedly classified information would bolster the defense claim that the acts described in the indictment are routine. Board members are regularly briefed, often in lengthy one-on-one phone calls, on meetings between the most senior AIPAC staffers and top administration officials.

Rosen routinely made such phone calls, a former staffer said.

“He made sure board members knew he was responsible and he was the one doing the work,” the staffer said.

Proving that such briefings are routine, however, will not necessarily deter the government from going ahead with the case: Judge T.S. Ellis, who is hearing the case, has suggested that the routine nature of such exchanges does not preclude prosecution.

“Persons who have unauthorized possession, who come into unauthorized possession of classified information, must abide by the law,” Ellis said last month in sentencing Larry Franklin, the former Pentagon analyst who pleaded guilty to leaking information to Rosen, Franklin and others. “That applies to academics, lawyers, journalists, professors, whatever.”

A defense source said the defendants could not recall board member briefings about the central charge in the indictment, involving allegedly classified information on supposed Iranian plans to kill American and Israeli agents in northern Iraq.

However, other alleged leaks in the indictment might have been relayed to board members, JTA has learned. One in 2002 involved David Satterfield, then a deputy assistant secretary of state and now deputy ambassador to Iraq. Satterfield relayed information to Rosen on Al-Qaida, the indictment says.

McNulty’s office would not comment on whether it planned to bring charges against Satterfield. Satterfield did not respond to previous JTA requests for comment.

The defense will maintain that Satterfield would have been authorized to release the information. The administration routinely used AIPAC as a conduit to influence Israel on matters where there were differences between Israel and the United States, for instance on Israeli arms sales to China. In those cases, the information might have been classified.

The information Satterfield allegedly relayed to Rosen apparently related to Iran’s ties to a wanted Lebanese terrorist.

Dinh’s brief was filed last month, but was made public only last week. JTA reported on the brief last month, and has been has been researching for several months interactions between Rosen, Weissman and government officials.

Patrick Dorton, an AIPAC spokesman, previously has said that Rosen and Weissman were fired last March because information arising out of the FBI investigation uncovered “conduct that was not part of their job and was beneath the standards of what AIPAC expects of their employees.”

A December 2000 AIPAC staff handbook does not say how to handle classified information. A 1985 internal memo by Rosen, recently obtained by JTA, outlines his plans to shift AIPAC’s lobbying emphasis from Congress to the executive branch. He explicitly calls for the cultivation of mid-level, non-elected officials — a description that would include Franklin.

Outlining the advantages of such lobbying, Rosen wrote: “They work for secretive rather than open institutions and agencies. And, perhaps most important of all for effective communications, they are in many cases experts in our subject themselves, as opposed to the ‘generalist’ in Congress who might be convinced by a few general ‘talking points’ explained by a layman.”

Former staffers say Rosen’s memo profoundly influenced AIPAC’s mission. AIPAC has never repudiated the document, though last year the organization said it had changed some lobbying practices — without specifying which ones.

“AIPAC continues to discuss perfectly appropriate and legal information with people on Capitol Hill and in all levels of the administration every single day,” Dorton said Tuesday.

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