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Aipac Staffers Under Investigation Negotiate Departures, Severance Pay

April 21, 2005
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The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is negotiating severance packages with two top employees who are the target of an FBI investigation sparked by alleged mishandling of classified information, JTA has learned. The imminent departure of Steve Rosen, AIPAC’s policy director, and Keith Weissman, its senior Iran analyst, suggests that the pro-Israel powerhouse wants to distance itself from the two before its May 22 policy conference and Israel’s historic pullout from the Gaza Strip this summer. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are scheduled to address the conference.

Still, observers say the departure of Rosen, who has shaped AIPAC policy for more than 20 years, would be a stunning blow for the pro-Israel lobby.

Two sources close to Rosen and Weissman said the staffers have been negotiating severance packages at least since last week. They have been on paid leave since January.

The negotiations could mean that AIPAC has lost the initial confidence it showed in the two men after the FBI raided AIPAC offices in August 2004 and then again in December. The searches came after the alleged leaking of classified documents by a Pentagon Iran specialist.

Since then, senior AIPAC staffers have testified before a federal grand jury convened by the office of Paul McNulty, the U.S. attorney for northern Virginia.

Pressed by JTA, lawyers for Rosen and Weissman issued the following statement Wednesday: “Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman have not violated any U.S. law or AIPAC policy. Contrary to press accounts, they have never solicited, received or passed on any classified documents. They carried out their job responsibilities solely to serve AIPAC’s goal of strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

It was the first on-the-record statement to come from the pair’s lawyers, Abbe Lowell and John Nassikas; in the past, all such statements have come from AIPAC and its lawyers. It also was the first statement to suggest that Weissman and Rosen had been accused of violating AIPAC policy.

Weissman was not available immediately for comment. Rosen was reached but had no comment.

Patrick Dorton, a spokesman for AIPAC, would only repeat the “no comment” AIPAC has made since several staffers went before a grand jury in January: “AIPAC does not comment on personnel matters.”

Weissman has worked at AIPAC for 12 years, but Rosen, 62, has been with the organization since 1982, when he was hired from the Rand Corporation, a think tank that often consults with the Pentagon.

He was hired after AIPAC’s lobbying efforts failed to stop the U.S. from selling spy planes to Saudi Arabia; the opposition to the sale that AIPAC amassed on Capitol Hill dissipated once President Reagan launched his own lobbying effort in its favor.

The lesson, Rosen suggested time and again, was that the organization had to lobby the executive branch as well. That made some traditionalists nervous. Lobbying Congress was a time-honored practice in Washington, but lobbying other branches of government seemed unseemly.

Yet Rosen’s model soon was replicated throughout Washington, and now it’s routine for lobbyists of all stripes to target both the legislative and executive branches.

But it was Rosen’s relationship with a nonlegislative branch of government that precipitated the current crisis.

Sources say the FBI moved against AIPAC after FBI agents observed Larry Franklin, a midlevel Iran analyst at the Pentagon, exchanging information with Rosen and Weissman at a restaurant in Arlington, Va., in 2003. It’s not clear whether the FBI observers at the time were targeting Franklin or the AIPAC staffers.

However, several reports subsequently said that the FBI threatened Franklin with prosecution unless he mounted a sting against the two AIPAC staffers, giving them false information about an imminent threat to Israeli agents in Kurdistan.

Once Rosen and Weissman relayed that information to Israel, according to those accounts, the FBI moved in, confiscating files from their offices in August and December. Franklin reportedly since has returned to work for the Pentagon, albeit in a nonsensitive post.

In December, several AIPAC officials received subpoenas: Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director; Richard Fishman, its managing director; Renee Rothstein, the communications director; and Raphael Danziger, the research director.

At first, AIPAC stood steadfastly behind Rosen and Weissman, saying that “neither AIPAC nor any member of our staff has broken any law, nor has AIPAC or its employees ever received information they believed was secret or classified.”

By February, when at least a few of the subpoenaed officials had given grand jury testimony, AIPAC had moved to terse “no comments.”

Rosen arrived at AIPAC before many of his superiors. He was the consummate insider; in 1991 The Washington Post quoted AIPAC’s then-executive director, Tom Dine, as describing Rosen “as the best bureaucratic infighter I ever met.”

Rosen was a fierce, demanding boss, but one who earned steadfast loyalty from some staffers, even long after they left the organization.

“I still can’t believe it,” said one former staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Understanding the kind of loyalty and respect people inside and outside the organization had for Steve, I can’t believe it wouldn’t be a mutually agreed-upon decision.”

At AIPAC’s staff briefings each Friday, no one commanded more attention than Rosen, who would confidently prognosticate developments in the Middle East, down to the minutest of details — and who often was proved right within weeks.

Sometimes that confidence grated. Yitzhak Rabin especially disliked Rosen, according to some who knew them both, which helped precipitate Rabin’s stunning public break with AIPAC in 1993, when the Israeli prime minister said he preferred that Israel handle relations with the United States on its own.

Especially confounding to Israeli leaders was Rosen’s persistence in proposing a formal U.S.-Israel defense pact. Israeli officials were raised on an ethos of Jewish independence; such a pact, even with Israel’s best friend, struck them as too close to the traditional Diaspora Jewish relationship with power.

Rabin eventually reconciled with AIPAC by proposing that it take a central role in raising awareness of what he believed to be Israel’s most dangerous foe, the Iranian theocracy. Rosen dove into the task with fervor, and his mark is left in the no-nonsense sanctions policy the United States now has toward Iran’s efforts to make a nuclear bomb.

That remains a central AIPAC plank. The Iranian threat is to star at AIPAC’s policy forum in May, including a “walking tour” exhibit on how close Iran is to creating the bomb.

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