Two former staffers at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee facing indictment on espionage charges shared allegedly classified information at the crux of the case against them with AIPAC’s executive director as soon as they received it, JTA has learned. Howard Kohr had no idea that the information in the July 21, 2004 e-mail from Keith Weissman, then AIPAC’s Iran analyst, was classified, multiple sources said, and the government has told AIPAC that Kohr is not the subject of any investigation. Kohr did not further disseminate the information, sources familiar with the events said.
A spokesman for AIPAC categorically denied any wrongdoing.
“No current employee of AIPAC knew that classified information was obtained from Larry Franklin,” the Pentagon analyst who allegedly gave Weissman the information, “or was involved in the dissemination of such information,” spokesman Patrick Dorton said. “AIPAC does not seek, use or request anything but legal and appropriate information as part of its work.”
Weissman and Steve Rosen, AIPAC’s former policy director, could be indicted this month or next for allegedly passing information to an Israeli Embassy official, Naor Gilon, the chief political officer. AIPAC fired Weissman and Rosen in March because of information it says arose out of the investigation.
The government is considering a public arrest of Rosen, sources say, a signal of the tough posture it plans to take on the case. Such hardball tactics — which included two public raids of AIPAC offices — have prompted new criticism and questions from Jewish leaders.
Some fear that the case will inhibit the functioning of Jewish organizations and others that deal with the executive branch.
“Not just Jewish organizations, but lobbyists in general,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Lawyers will be telling their clients, ‘Let’s look at practices.’ “
The revelation of the e-mail to Kohr raises questions about the intentions of Rosen and Weissman in obtaining and sharing the allegedly classified information. The FBI knows about the e-mail, sources told JTA, and its existence apparently was the subject of much scrutiny by a grand jury convened in January to consider the case.
The apparent rush by Weissman and Rosen to tell their boss the new information could reinforce the defense contention that they were not lone wolves bent on espionage — as sources close to the defense believe the government plans to argue — but lobbyists sharing inside information, as was their job. That is to be the crux of the two men’s defense, sources said.
The revelation of the e-mail to Kohr also raises the question of why AIPAC fired Rosen and Weissman after months of defending their integrity. Some AIPAC donors and Jewish community leaders have asked whether it was appropriate for the organization to fire the two if the acts at the center of the investigation were part of their daily routine as lobbyists.
However, a source close to AIPAC suggested that what the men did was far from routine.
“Rosen and Weissman were dismissed because they engaged in conduct that was not part of their job and was beneath the standards of what AIPAC expects of their employees,” the source said.
Franklin, the Pentagon Iran analyst who allegedly told Weissman that Israeli agents supposedly in northern Iraq faced grave danger, pled not guilty June 13 to relaying classified information to Rosen, Weissman and Gilon at on earlier occasions.
Sources close to the defense say the U.S. attorney’s office in northern Virginia plans on an aggressive prosecution, especially of Rosen. Prosecutors have indicated they want Rosen arrested and “perp walked” — led into the courthouse in handcuffs — for the cameras, the sources say, and may object to bail.
Prosecutors let Franklin turn himself in, and they intend to make the same allowance for Weissman, the sources said.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty would not comment, nor would lawyers for Rosen, Weissman or Franklin.
The notion that Iranian agents planned to kidnap, torture and kill Israelis and American agents in northern Iraq allegedly was fed to Weissman on July 21, 2004, by Franklin as part of an apparent FBI sting of Rosen and Weissman.
The crux of the government’s case, defense sources say, is the conversation Rosen and Weissman allegedly had the same day with Gilon. Prosecutors are likely to say that conversation violated the 1917 Espionage Act, which could be interpreted as banning the relaying of classified information to a foreign power.
Rosen and Weissman will claim that they did not realize at the time that the information was classified, defense sources say.
Sources say Kohr did not know that Rosen and Weissman called Gilon and Glenn Kessler, the State Department correspondent for the Washington Post, subsequent to Kohr’s meeting with the two staffers and his receipt of the e-mail summarizing the information on Iraq. Sources close to the defense contend that such contacts with the media and Israeli diplomats were routine.
AIPAC officials say they have been assured by the government that investigators aren’t targeting the organization or any current staffer, including Kohr.
“We now know directly from the government that neither AIPAC, nor any of its current employees, is or ever has been the target of this investigation,” Kohr said in a May 22 speech at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington.
Franklin is accused of relaying classified information to Rosen, Weissman and Gilon in 2002 and 2003. By July 21, 2004, he was cooperating with the FBI.
He later suspended that cooperation, which led the FBI to reinstate its case against him.
Defense sources say that if indictments against Rosen and Weissman come down, some of their other contacts with Franklin also will be raised, but the July 21 sting is the core of the government’s case.
Weissman allegedly called Franklin early on the morning of July 21 after months of no contact between the two men, part of a routine that included cold-calling multiple sources inside government. Franklin allegedly said he had urgent information and asked to meet Weissman outside a department store at the Pentagon City mall in Arlington, Va., a subway stop away from the Pentagon.
Franklin allegedly told Weissman that intelligence agencies were suppressing the Iranian plot to kill the Israelis and Americans, and he asked Weissman to relay it to Elliott Abrams, then an assistant national security adviser at the White House.
According to this reasoning, Abrams was likelier to listen to one of Washington’s premier lobbying groups than to a mid-level analyst at the Pentagon.
Franklin also allegedly told Weissman that U.S. intelligence had not shared the information with Israeli officials.
After the meeting, Weissman allegedly told Rosen, who thought the information important enough to meet immediately with Kohr. In a brief meeting, Rosen allegedly asked Kohr to relay the information to Abrams.
Kohr asked Weissman to summarize the information in an e-mail, sources said.
There is no evidence that Kohr relayed the information to Abrams. A spokesman for Abrams would not comment.
Jewish organizational leaders are asking tougher questions about the investigation, which first came to light when FBI agents raided AIPAC offices on Aug. 27, 2004, but which apparently had been under way since at least September 2001. It intensified after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when the government took more vigorous action to stop leaks.
The ADL’s Foxman raised a number of concerns about the government’s case: Why target the pre-eminent Jewish lobby? Why, after years of tracking Rosen and AIPAC, did the government need to resort to a “sting” designed to appeal to Rosen and Weissman’s “higher motives” — i.e., a desire to save Israeli lives?
Foxman said he believes Rosen and Weissman eventually will be vindicated, but that the vigorous prosecution could chill the effectiveness of Jewish organizations that deal with the government.
Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, agrees.
“It will impact the way people in the executive branch interact with groups in the non-profit world that are doing foreign policy,” he said. “They will be a lot more hesitant to have normal interactions.”
He also expressed concern that the “dual loyalty” canard about American Jews would be resuscitated.
Even among Jewish groups that often are at odds with AIPAC on policy issues, there is concern that the two staffers were set up for essentially fulfilling the commandment of “pikuach nefesh,” or the saving of lives at all costs.
Kohr pledged at the conference to introduce “policies and procedures” that would guarantee accountability and transparency. Since then, AIPAC spokespersons have declined to elaborate on what steps, if any, AIPAC has taken.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.