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Used to Working Behind the Scenes, Aipac Suddenly Thrust into Limelight

August 31, 2004
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In its outreach to potential supporters and to the media, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee touts its access to the highest levels of government. Now it’s that very access that has thrust the pro-Israel lobby, accustomed to working behind the scenes, into the limelight.

Accusations that AIPAC officials received classified information from a Pentagon staffer and forwarded it on to Israel broke on the eve of this week’s Republican National Convention in New York, where AIPAC is hosting several policy forums for Republican contributors.

According to media accounts, a non-Jewish officer on the Iranian desk at the Pentagon, Larry Franklin, is being investigated for passing at least one classified document to AIPAC officials, which may then have been forwarded to Israeli officials in Washington.

Reports have suggested that Franklin could face charges ranging from espionage to the mishandling of classified information.!

The Jerusalem Post reported that the AIPAC officials involved were Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, and that they have spoken to federal investigators.

Rosen is AIPAC’s director of research and considered one of the most influential people in the organization. He has been with AIPAC since 1982, and mentored both Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s current executive director, and Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Weissman is deputy director of foreign policy issues and specializes in relations with Iran, Syria and Turkey.

AIPAC would not confirm or deny the reports.

New reports also suggested that Naor Gilon, minister of political affairs of the Israeli embassy in Washington, was the subject of an FBI investigation on suspicion of espionage for Israel when Franklin came to the investigators’ attention more than a year ago.

Both Israel and AIPAC deny any impropriety in the case. Many U.S. Jews believe, or hope, that no charges will be filed and that t! he issue will fade from the headlines in coming days.

But the char ges, and their prominent play in the media, have reopened questions about the way AIPAC does business with the U.S. and Israeli governments.

AIPAC’s grassroots advocacy and political lobbying departments get most of the attention, but the organization also has a thriving think tank that works to influence Middle East policy at the highest levels of government.

To those who work with AIPAC in Washington, or have worked for the organization itself, the idea of information being passed from government officials to AIPAC staffers to Israelis seems almost commonplace.

After all, these people see each other on almost a daily basis, at think-tank lunches and policy meetings throughout the capital. Information is exchanged and each participant tries to show his importance by touting what he knows and whom he has access to.

“The easiest thing to learn in Washington is that no one likes to be surprised,” said Jon Alterman, a former State Department official. “AIPAC doesn! ‘t like to be surprised and nobody wants to surprise AIPAC.”

In that sense, AIPAC is like any other policy organization in Washington.

“Information is the currency in Washington,” said Morris Amitay, AIPAC’s executive director from 1974 to 1980. “AIPAC meets regularly with officials at the State Department and Defense Department, trying to find out what’s going on.”

It’s unclear how much of the information AIPAC receives is forwarded to Israeli officials, but the coordination between the Jewish state and its advocates in Washington is considerable.

Most Israeli officials who travel to Washington meet with AIPAC and exchange information. But Israeli officials also have strong ties to the Bush administration, and receive much information directly from American governmental sources, without need of intermediaries.

One congressional staffer said it was understood in Washington that AIPAC had access to the highest sources in both the U.S. and Israeli governme! nts, and could get most information it wanted.

“They are very astu te at knowing who will know what they would like to find out,” said the staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the FBI investigation is ongoing. “It’s simply understood, based on the success they’ve had.”

But because of the issues AIPAC deals with, policy discussions can easily cross into areas of national security, increasing the chances that classified information will be passed.

“There’s always a real possibility that in giving a briefing, certain information that is classified could come out by the government briefers,” said Neal Sher, who served as AIPAC’s executive director from 1994 to 1996 and formerly worked in the U.S. Justice Department. “The lines are real blurry.”

But Sher said the briefer would be the one committing the illegal act, not the one who gets the information.

“Anyone with half a brain, if someone is giving you a classified document, would say, ‘I don’t want to look at it,’ ” Amitay said. “Because it could be a sting.” According to Newsweek, that’s what occurred in the current case. Franklin reportedly tried to give documents to an AIPAC staffer, who wouldn’t take them but asked for the information to be summarized orally.

When it comes to documents, federal officials with security clearances are given little leniency. Most desks have two computers; one for classified material and one for unclassified. The e-mail systems are separate and diskettes are not allowed to be inserted into the classified system.

But there’s a lot more leeway when government officials brief outsiders.

“How far you go in telling people what’s going on in a classified environment is a decision you have to make every day,” Alterman said. “There is a perception that you can trust the people you’re talking to.”

The congressional staffer added that much of what is classified already has been reported by the media.

The recent focus on AIPAC’s business practices is counter to the way the organization! likes to work. AIPAC likes to shift focus away from its own professio nals and onto the lay leaders and lawmakers publicly expressing support for the Jewish state.

But that hasn’t always been easy. Because Israel is such a heated topic in Washington and around the world, and because AIPAC has been successful in its mission, the group often is at the center of questions regarding U.S. support for Israel.

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