New revelations in the case against two former American Israel Public Affairs Committee staffers raise questions about why FBI investigators have been focused on the pro-Israel lobby. The New York Times reported Thursday that David Satterfield, the No. 2 man at the U.S. mission in Baghdad, was one of two government officials who allegedly gave classified information to Steve Rosen, AIPAC’s former director of foreign policy issues, but he wasn’t named in the indictment handed down against Rosen and two others earlier this month.
Satterfield allegedly spoke with Rosen on several occasions in 2002 — when Satterfield was the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs — and shared classified information. At one point, Rosen allegedly relayed the secret information in a memorandum to other AIPAC staffers.
The fact that Satterfield is not a target of the case and was allowed to take a sensitive position in Iraq has raised questions about the severity of the information allegedly given to AIPAC officials, as well as about the government’s motives for targeting Rosen and Keith Weissman, a former AIPAC Iran analyst, neither of whom had classified access.
The defendants and AIPAC supporters see the new revelations as evidence that federal prosecutors are targeting the powerful pro-Israel lobby for simply conducting the normal Washington practice of trading sensitive information. Officials inside and outside government privately acknowledge that classified information routinely changes hands among influential people in the foreign policy community and that the exchanges often are advantageous to diplomats.
“If, in fact, Satterfield passed on classified information that other people should not have had, then they should all be guilty of the same thing,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “The fact that Satterfield hasn’t been prosecuted suggests that’s not the case.”
Rosen and Weissman both pleaded not guilty Tuesday to a charge of conspiracy to communicate national defense information. Rosen also is charged with communicating national defense information to people not entitled to receive it.
Larry Franklin, a Pentagon Iran analyst, has been charged with five similar counts, including conspiracy to communicate classified information to a foreign agent. Franklin, who also pleaded not guilty, is accused of passing classified information to Rosen and Weissman from 2002 through last year.
Observers say the case is likely to create a chill among lobbyists and others who seek to garner foreign-policy information from the government.
The second U.S. government official, who allegedly met with Rosen and Weissman in 2000, remains anonymous but reportedly has left government service. Their identification is seen as central to the government’s case that the AIPAC staffers followed a pattern of seeking classified information and disseminating it to journalists and officials at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. A spokeswoman for Paul McNulty, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, would not comment.
Attorneys for Rosen and Weissman, who are collaborating on their defense, will likely use the same information to show that sharing documents and other information was normal practice between government officials and AIPAC.
Leaders of other pro-Israel groups say State Department and other government aides handling the Middle East portfolio frequently share information.
“When we discuss issues, it’s an exchange. It’s not one-sided,” Hoenlein said. “What people forget is they benefit from these exchanges too, because they learn things from us.”
Those who have worked with Rosen say a large part of his task was capturing sensitive material and that numerous government officials aided his pursuits over the years.
Tom Dine, a former AIPAC executive director, said Rosen had claimed in a 1983 memo, shortly after joining the pro-Israel lobby, that he received a classified review of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Dine, who recently left his post as president of Radio Free Europe to head the San Francisco Jewish federation, told the New York Jewish Week that he was shown the document by FBI investigators.
“Everybody knew that Steve was quite capable of luring important information, which was exceedingly useful to the mission of the office,” said Neal Sher, another former AIPAC executive director. “It was understood by the people in the organization, both professional and lay.”
But they say Rosen’s work mirrored what was being done throughout Washington.
“The trafficking in sensitive information, some of which might have been classified, is the norm in many instances,” said Sher, a former federal prosecutor. “While I don’t recall ever being specifically told that info they passed on to me was classified, I would not have been shocked if that was done.”
A spokesman for AIPAC denied any wrongdoing by the organization.
“AIPAC does not seek, use or request anything but legally obtained information as part of its work,” Patrick Dorton said. “All AIPAC employees are expected and required to uphold this standard.”
Satterfield is not considered a subject of the government’s probe, and he reportedly was cleared by the Justice Department for his Iraq post.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he could not comment on an ongoing investigation.
“I will say, though, that David Satterfield is an outstanding public servant, he is a distinguished Foreign Service officer and diplomat, and that he has worked on behalf of the American people for a number of years,” McCormack said Thursday.
A State Department official said it was within Satterfield’s portfolio to work with policy groups such as AIPAC. As the deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, Satterfield led the State Department group dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as other regional issues on AIPAC’s agenda.
“It wasn’t out of the normal at all for a deputy assistant secretary, as he was, to be meeting with AIPAC on a regular basis,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Our office tries to meet with interested people of all groups, and it’s supposed to be an informational exchange.”
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.