WASHINGTON (JTA) – The night flower is back, and he’s liking the light.
Steve Rosen, the former AIPAC foreign policy chief, is at the center of Middle East policy attention nearly four years after his indictment on charges of handling classified information. He wrote a blog post highlighting past controversial statements by Charles “Chas” Freeman, the putative chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Rosen then alerted reporters to the posting, and that launched a process that ultimately led Freeman to reject the job.
Freeman’s defenders, who thought his tough views on Israel’s settlement policies would bring a breath of fresh air in the new Obama administration, were appalled.
"A newly elected President of the United States vs. a guy on trial for espionage," MJ Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum wrote on his blog at Talking Points Memo. "A new definition of chutzpah is born!"
Rosen, 65, is charged under the 1917 Espionage Act, but not for spying. The section cited in the indictment deals only with handling sensitive information.
Rosen is no stranger to charges of chutzpah — and worse. But when he was one of the top figures at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he made a point of wielding his brashness away from the limelight. Every conversation, every lunch with a journalist would begin with a perfunctory "This is all off the record." His reputed motto, recorded by Jeffrey Goldberg in a 2005 New Yorker profile, was "A lobby is like a night flower: It thrives in the dark and dies in the sun."
Rosen says he wrote the “night flower” memo 30 years ago, before he joined AIPAC, and now disavows it. His experience with AIPAC has taught him that it is necessary to lobby in the open, he says. Rosenberg recalls receiving it from Rosen in August 1982 when both men worked at AIPAC.
And now Rosen has plunged himself into blogging at Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum, and says he welcomes the work after four years of languishing in the limbo of pre-trial motions. His trial is set to begin June 2.
"They not only took away my income, they took away my work," he said in an interview with JTA, referring to the government, which Rosen has claimed in motions forced AIPAC to fire him. "My involvement with Middle East policy is something I not only did for 23 years at AIPAC but 20 years before AIPAC. When I was offered the opportunity to participate again, it’s only human to be very pleased and to have a structure in which I could contribute."
The notion of Rosen taking a lead role in felling such a senior appointment is all the more remarkable given his recent profile.
Rosen defiantly continues to routinely attend think-tank sessions on Middle East policy, as well as a few on free speech that have dealt directly with his case. It is only over the last year or so that the Jewish community and State Department mandarins who attend such events have stopped taking frantic pains to avoid his eye contact, and begun to return his toothy grin and warm hellos.
For years, those who arrived late at a crowded event and wanted a seat could be certain of finding one next to Rosen.
"Good for him," said Tom Dine, the former AIPAC president who hired Rosen and now consults with the Israel Policy Forum, a group that skews left of Rosen on Israel policy. "For some people it would ruin their lives. He still has spunk and it’s good to see."
Dine said he wasn’t surprised to see Rosen’s return to the game.
"Pleasantly amused is more like it," he said.
The climate might be more conducive for Rosen’s re-emergence. The judge in his case has openly criticized the government’s arguments as deeply flawed and severely restricted prosecutors’ options in making the case. There is a rare unity on the left and the right that the Bush administration overreached in bringing the charges under a section of the espionage law that has rarely been invoked, and never successfully.
Rosen and his co-defendant, Keith Weissman, AIPAC’s former Iran analyst, are charged with receiving classified information in a conversation and relaying it to colleagues, reporters and Israeli diplomats.
Rosenberg also has said the case should be dropped, despite his own loathing for Rosen, with whom he clashed decades ago when they were both employed by AIPAC. Still, he says, Rosen’s role in the Freeman matter seems untoward.
"Whether he is found innocent or not innocent, AIPAC itself made the decision that his behavior was beyond the pale enough that it terminated his employment," he said. "Being indicted under the espionage act of 1917 doesn’t mean you’re necessarily guilty, but it’s nothing to be proud of."
Pipes dismissed the repeated references to Rosen’s indictment cited by Freeman defenders.
"We do have a tradition of innocence until proven guilty," he said. "He is not formally restricted from speaking out on these issues. Why would I want to censor him?"
Doug Bloomfield, another former AIPAC senior staffer who clashed with Rosen decades ago, said Rosen was smart enough to pick in Freeman a figure who was vulnerable for a fall, not just for his long published commentary on Israel but also for his friendliness to the Chinese and Saudi oligarchies.
"I thought Steve played it very cleverly," said Bloomfield, who now corresponds with Rosen via e-mail. "He planted his seed in a very fertile field. Freeman was his own worst enemy, but Steve exploited it."
Bloomfield chided organizations that claimed a degree of credit for Freeman’s withdrawal, including the Zionist Organization of America and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
"They’re not clever enough," he said. "When it comes to this, Steve outmatches them."
Pipes, who is based in Philadelphia and a consistent critic of Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, describes Rosen as an insightful analyst to whom he turns to critique his own analyses.
"It’s pretty intense" is how he describes their daily exchanges, "with me pitching him the thoughts for his blog and asking for his advice because he has a wealth of experience in a very important area."
Pipes and Rosen would not explain how Rosen is paid for his work, but an internal Middle East Forum solicitation used Rosen’s role in the Freeman case to fund-raise.
"Only someone with Steve’s stature and credibility could have made this happen, and on the basis of a mere 445-word comment," says the e-mail, signed by Pipes.
Freeman and his defenders seize on such material to demonstrate that Rosen was in cahoots with a powerful lobby seeking to quash any dissent from an Israel policy that aligns with Likud, Israel’s right-wing party, and its allies.
"Within a day or two the Steve Rosen and Daniel Pipes crowd began piling on" is how Freeman put it in an interview with The Nation.
Rosen scoffs at the notion of him and Pipes being part of a "crowd" or of any effort coordinated with AIPAC.
"Some of the people who have been blogging I never met, and I’m not allowed to talk to people from AIPAC," Rosen said, referring to the lobby’s ban on staff dealings with Rosen or Weissman as long as they are under indictment.
Indeed, Rosen is suing AIPAC, JTA revealed last week, for defamation based on its published reasons for firing him and Weissman.
Rosen would not comment on the lawsuit. An AIPAC spokesman said it would be contested "vigorously." Weissman, who did not join the lawsuit, also would not comment.
Bloomfield wondered whether the suit and the Freeman campaign were of a piece, saying that by raising his profile, Rosen was showing AIPAC that he was still capable of instigating a clamor — a talent that conceivably might be turned against his former employer.
"He not only knows where the skeletons are buried, he put a lot of them there," Bloomfield said.
Rosen, whose commentary skews to the left of Pipes — overall, Rosen praises the Obama foreign policy team — is unapologetic. The Freeman remarks he highlighted were not taken out of context, Rosen says, but were part of a long public record.
Rosen, known in his AIPAC days for his prodigious recall, identified Freeman as a pro-Saudi critic of Israel as soon as he read of his appointment in The Cable, Foreign Policy magazine’s online column monitoring U.S. foreign policy.
"He was known as a hard-line critic of Israel who has been turning out advocacy material — not analysis, but advocacy material — for years," Rosen said.
"He was quite well known, he was the AIPAC of the Arabs," he said, referring to Freeman’s capacity heading the Saudi-funded Middle East Policy Council. "To see him painted as an analyst is very odd. He is an ideologue."
Defenders of Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, have depicted him as a sharp contrarian whose analytical abilities were valued by Adm. Dennis Blair, the national intelligence director.
"We know Chas to be a man of integrity and high intelligence who would never let his personal views shade or distort intelligence assessments," said a letter to The Wall Street Journal from 17 former ambassadors, including at least one, Sam Lewis, who is involved in pro-Israel advocacy.
In interviews, Freeman has said overall he admires Israel more than he criticizes it. He and his defenders posit a coordinated effort aimed at demonstrating pro-Israel muscle early in the administration.
"While AIPAC has attempted to avoid the appearance of being involved in any way in the attacks on Freeman, Rosen has taken a leading role," Max Blumenthal wrote in his Rosen expose in The Daily Beast, an online news and opinion site.
AIPAC did not take a formal position on the Freeman appointment, and Congress members who pressed for Freeman’s withdrawal have said they did not hear from the lobby. Its spokesman, Josh Block, has emphasized in a number of forums that Rosen does not speak for AIPAC.
The group’s officials reportedly provided reporters with background on Freeman upon request.
Rosen insists his approach was just-the-facts. His original blog post, titled "Alarming appointment at CIA," quoted Freeman at length. Among lawmakers who pressed Blair to rescind the appointment, a number cited Freeman’s Israel views.
Others claimed he had financial ties to China and Saudi Arabia, which Freeman has vehemently denied. Still others cited his defense of how China deals with dissent: Freeman’s statements on China led U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the U.S. House of Representatives speaker, to become his most powerful detractor.
Other senior lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee contacted Blair privately based on concerns over Freeman’s China ties and views.
Rosenberg, of The Israel Policy Forum, wondered whether ultimately he and other Freeman defenders had unwittingly colluded with Rosen.
"People like me who opposed the effort to dump Freeman liked giving Rosen all the credit in order to discredit the effort," he mused. "And he liked taking the credit."