WASHINGTON (JTA) — It was a case that transfixed the pro-Israel community: the arrest in August 2005 on espionage charges of two senior officials at the most influential pro-Israel group in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Before the government dropped the case in May 2009 amid questions of whether the officials actually committed a crime by talking to Israeli officials about classified information one of them had received alleging an Iranian plot against Israelis stationed in Iraq, AIPAC fired the two men: foreign policy chief Steve Rosen and Iran analyst Keith Weissman.
Now the battle is on to clear their names.
Rosen has filed a defamation lawsuit demanding $20 million from his former employer, and new court filings on Tuesday shed light on a key element of the case: Before firing the two senior staffers, AIPAC prepared a robust defense of them that alleged a conspiracy inside U.S. government agencies to target pro-Israel groups.
The filings by Rosen’s lawyers aim to undermine AIPAC’s claim that the decision in March 2005 to fire him and Weissman was based on the revelation that the two dealt in classified information. Rather, the documents allege, AIPAC approved of dealing in classified information.
The court case is significant because it shows the inner workings of AIPAC, a lobbying group that both enemies and supporters call one of Washington’s most powerful and feared lobbies. The new court filings also show the extent to which some of AIPAC’s highest officials believed the U.S. government was targeting the group because of its pro-Israel stance and activities, not because of suspected criminality.
That point comes through especially clear in the draft of a speech that was to have been delivered by AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr, Rosen’s boss, just weeks after the FBI raided AIPAC’s offices on Aug. 27, 2004. In the speech, Kohr was to say that the government was targeting AIPAC for “who we are and what we do.” The speech was never delivered.
The documents filed this week show that Kohr and AIPAC’s lawyer already were aware in October 2004 that Weissman suspected that the information he had received about the Iranian plot was classified. Kohr and other officials acknowledge that chatter about classified information, while never solicited by AIPAC officials, inevitably bubbles up in the course of lobbying routines.
Rosen’s suit alleges that he was defamed when AIPAC spokesman Patrick Dorton told the media in 2008 that he was fired because he and Weissman “did not comport with standards that AIPAC expects of its employees.”
The cache of documents filed this week are part of Rosen’s response to a request filed last month by AIPAC lawyers asking a judge to dismiss the case, claiming that Rosen does not have enough evidence to go to trial.
In their court filings, Rosen’s lawyers describe two earlier cases in which AIPAC defended and praised Rosen and another employee for receiving apparently classified information and passing it along.
“Rosen had received and shared potentially classified information concerning Libyan officials giving money to an American Presidential candidate in 1984,” the lawyers’ brief says. “AlPAC did not disapprove of his actions but in fact issued him a positive performance appraisal that year and every year thereafter.”
Rosen told JTA that at the time he tried to leak the Libya story to the media with the approval of his bosses. Reporters never were able to confirm the story with a second source, however, and this week’s court filings mark the first time that the information has been made public.
In another case that made headlines in 1984, AIPAC defended an employee who had distributed to congressional offices a classified paper outlining U.S. strategies in trade negotiations in Israel. AIPAC said at the time that the staffer never solicited the paper and had returned it immediately upon learning that it was classified. The document had a relatively low “business confidential” classification, and FBI agents at the time said that it “contains no national defense information and was originally classified to protect the U.S. bargaining position.”
Dorton denied that AIPAC ever dealt in classified information.
“AIPAC does not seek, use or request anything but legal and appropriate information as part of its work,” he said. “No current employee of AIPAC was involved in knowingly obtaining or distributing classified information.”
But in the draft speech Kohr prepared but never delivered to top AIPAC donors on Oct. 18, 2004, AIPAC’s chief is blunt about who he blames for the raid on AIPAC’s offices and for erroneous leaks to media alleging a “spy ring” at the lobby.
“We believe that some people may be trying to distort the meaning of the law in order to undermine AIPAC, and indeed the entire pro-Israel movement,” the draft speech says. “They are not only suggesting that two members of our staff broke the law. They are also trying to gather evidence that AIPAC, by virtue of who we are and what we do, is violating the law.
“Most of the FBI’s questions have focused on the very nature of how AIPAC works," Kohr was to have said. “They have focused on AIPAC’s role in affecting U.S. Middle East policy.”
Kohr suggests that AIPAC is caught in the internecine wars between Bush administration neoconservatives and their enemies in and out of government.
It was not clear whether Kohr and AIPAC planned on making a public counteroffensive accusing U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials of deliberately targeting pro-Israel groups. Officials and lay leaders within AIPAC at the time were privately telling associates that AIPAC was targeted by anti-Israel obsessives inside government agencies.
An AIPAC briefing paper prepared around the same time as Kohr’s speech — and also never distributed — also intimates that the prosecutors were seen as singling out pro-Israel groups.
"That speech was never given because we were uncomfortable with what the draft said and it’s not relevant," Dorton told JTA this week. "One of its principal authors was Steve Rosen’s defense counsel," Abbe Lowell, "and at the end of the day, we just didn’t feel comfortable with its content."
Rosen has alleged that AIPAC fired him and then for years refused to pay his legal fees because it was under pressure at the time from the government — which, he alleges, had threatened to invoke a rule allowing the government to charge corporations that protect employees under indictment. A judge considering a different case subsequently ruled that such threats were unconstitutional and the government has stopped the practice.
AIPAC has always denied government pressure played a role in the firing of Rosen and Weissman.
The government, in its August 2005 indictment, hinged the charges against the former AIPAC staffers on a section of the 1917 Espionage Act criminalizing the receipt of classified information. The section had been invoked only a handful of times before, and never successfully.
The threat to free speech posed by the law has made headlines in recent days in considerations of whether the U.S. government could successfully sue WikiLeaks, which has received and distributed classified diplomatic cables.