Washington — David Cohen’s path to second in command at the Central Intelligence Agency is, in many respects, a typical one in Washington.
A seasoned Ivy League lawyer who began his career defending the right of religious groups to display menorahs on government property, Cohen was the Obama administration’s top Iran sanctions official as the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
But in other respects, the 51-year-old Cohen’s ascent to deputy director is less typical.
A number of Jews have long alleged that they hit speed bumps in the American security services, their careers in some cases temporarily obstructed over security clearance questions. For others, accusations of espionage based on ties to Israel, however remote, have driven them from their jobs following home raids and round-the-clock surveillance.
Two federal employees — Adam Ciralsky, a CIA lawyer who was investigated in 1999, and David Tenenbaum, a civilian army engineer whose home was raided by the FBI in 1997 — uncovered evidence that they were targeted because they were Jewish.
Ciralsky learned that his distant relationship to Israel’s first and long dead president, Chaim Weizmann, and the fact that his father had purchased Israel Bonds were held against him. Tenenbaum was deemed suspicious in part because he spoke Hebrew even though it was helpful in performing his official duties as a liaison to Israeli counterparts.
Ciralsky and Tenenbaum each filed suit against their respective agencies, both of which ultimately admitted that the men were victims of religious discrimination. Ciralsky quietly dropped his case in 2012. Tenenbaum’s case is ongoing.
Jewish leaders said those incidents, along with the most notorious case of a Jewish government career run aground — the Navy intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987 for passing on state secrets to Israel — are now fading from memory. In their wake, they said, the outlook for Jews at the highest levels of the American security apparatus are improving.
Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that complaints to his organization of bias against Jews in government have diminished nearly to zero in recent years.
“The problem related to Pollard and the stereotype of dual loyalty,” said Foxman, whose group until two years ago provided diversity training to the CIA. “I would say we have mostly overcome the residual issue of trust of Jews in intelligence issues.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, called Cohen “one of the heroes” of the effort to pressure Iran economically over its nuclear program and said his appointment shows the government is sensitive to cases of past bias.
“The message from on top is very important,” said Hoenlein, though he cautioned that such messages don’t always trickle down. “It doesn’t necessarily get down to the operatives who make decisions about promotions.”
Jewish-Americans have been working in American intelligence since the days of the CIA’s predecessor, the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services. Their skills were in demand in part because so many were recent immigrants, or were the children of immigrants, and were familiar with European languages and customs.
Some Jewish agents enjoyed long careers in U.S. security agencies with nary a hiccup. A smaller number have risen to its upper echelons. John Deutsch served as CIA director for 17 months in 1995-96, the second Jew to hold that position. James Schlesinger, who was born Jewish but converted to Christianity as an adult, served as CIA director for several months in 1973. Another David Cohen was the agency’s deputy director of operations in the 1990s.
The number of Jewish security personnel who have hit roadblocks is not clear. Lawyers who represent security personnel denied the clearance necessary for advancement say they have fielded dozens of complaints from Jews.
Mark Zaid, a Washington attorney who specializes in government and intelligence matters, said the security issue his clients most often face has to do with relatives overseas, which prompts worry from federal authorities about their susceptibility to pressures from foreign governments. Israel presents a special challenge, he said, because of the closeness of its alliance with the United States and the country’s reputation for “aggressive” espionage stemming in part from the Pollard case.
“You suspect the Russians of wanting your wallet, so you stay a foot away,” Zaid said. “The Israelis, you hug, but you don’t know if they’re picking your pocket.”
Sheldon Cohen, another lawyer who handles security clearance cases, said he has won every Jewish case he has taken. Like Zaid, he said he was likelier to hit a brick wall representing clients from Muslim countries. Sheldon Cohen said he has lost a number of those cases.
“More scrutiny is given to countries that are not on the best relations with the United States than countries that are on good relations with the United States,” said Sheldon Cohen, who has been working on security clearances since 1964.
One reason David Cohen may have avoided such pitfalls is that he rose up through the Treasury, a relative latecomer to the intelligence game, but which has become one of the busiest intelligence hubs in the government. The department that Cohen headed there, the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, has existed only since 2004. His immediate predecessor, Stuart Levey, also was Jewish.
Mark Dubowitz, the director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank that has worked closely with Treasury on Iran sanctions, said Cohen represents a new brand of intelligence professional who uses the international financial system to track and punish America’s enemies.
“There’s a real lineage of these Treasury professionals who took Treasury from an institution that was a minor player on national security to what is now being described as President Obama’s favorite noncombatant command,” Dubowitz said.
The CIA did not consent to an interview with Cohen, but noted its director’s statement welcoming him to the agency.
“David brings a wealth of experience on many of the issues that we focus on as an agency and I look forward to his insights, expertise, and energy as we address the growing number and diversity of national security challenges facing America today,” John Brennan said.
Cohen is from Boston and in high school became friends with Jamin Dershowitz, the son of Harvard professor and well-known Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz.
“He practically lived in my house,” said Alan Dershowitz, who recalled having Cohen’s family over for Passover seders. Cohen and the younger Dershowitz, who is general counsel to the WNBA, are still close.
Alan Dershowitz recommended Cohen to his alma mater, Yale Law School, and then for his first job working for the prominent Washington attorney Nathan Lewin, where he battled civil liberties groups who challenged the display of menorahs on public property.
“He is very consciously Jewish,” Lewin said of Cohen.
Alan Dershowitz said Cohen is adept at bringing people together on an issue, calling him a forceful advocate for the Iran nuclear talks favored by the Obama administration but which many in the pro-Israel community treat with skepticism.
“He combines likability with smarts and tough-mindedness,” Dershowitz said. “The kid from Boston became the No. 2 man at the CIA.”