f course there's nothing all that unusual about a spy going to work for a Washington thinktank. Ex-CIA employees do it all the time: so do all sorts of other spooks, who would otherwise be haunting the world's darkest corners. No big deal. But what I've never seen, and don't recall ever hearing about, is the spectacle of a spy for a foreign country being hired by any organization that hopes to influence U.S. foreign policy. Well, here's one for the record books: the Middle East Forum has hired Steve Rosen, once the head of policy development for the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Rosen is accused of stealing highly classified information from the U.S. government and passing it on to Israeli government officials.
Rosen was the sparkplug of AIPAC, known for implementing – with notable success – the powerful lobbying group's efforts to influence the executive branch. The very effective modus operandi of this behind-the-scenes wheeler dealer was summed up by his reported comment that:
"A lobby is like a night flower. It thrives in the dark and dies in the sun."
Slinking about in the shadows, Rosen and his sidekick Keith Weissman – an Iran expert – cultivated one Larry Franklin, the Pentagon policy department's top Iran analyst, and pried top secret intelligence from him, including information on al Qaeda, the Khobar Towers terrorist attack, and Iranian armaments. Before the FBI descended on him, Franklin had been passing information to the AIPAC espionage team for over a year, planning to advance his career using the influential lobby as his sponsor: he hoped for a spot on Bush's National Security Council. In return, he gave his handlers access to some of America's most closely guarded secrets. When FBI agents finally paid him a visit, he led them to a treasure trove of stolen top secret dossiers kept in his Alexandria,0 Virginia home – a veritable library of classified information, 83 documents in all, spanning three decades.
The arrest was prefigured by two FBI raids on AIPAC headquarters in Washington: federal law enforcement descended on the building early in the morning, without warning, surrounded the place and carted away loads of evidence. Four AIPAC officials were handed subpoenas.
Franklin pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in a federal prison and a $10,000 fine, agreeing to testify for the prosecution. Rosen and Weissman pleaded innocent, and their top-flight lawyers have kept pretrial maneuvering ongoing for four years this past August. Their very effective method: greymail. Apparently, the purloined information is so sensitive that it cannot be revealed without compromising America's national security interests in a major way: the defense has delayed the trial by insisting that all this information be discussed in open court, or else the defendants will not be able to get a fair hearing.
What is amazing about this case isn't just the long delay in the legal proceedings, but the brazenness of the accused: they openly proclaim their guilt – that is, they admit to the actions detailed in the indictment – while maintaining that they did absolutely nothing wrong. Spying? Who – us? Why, we were just exercising our "First Amendment rights" like any journalist out to get a scoop.
With one big difference, though: legitimate journalists don't report their findings – classified sensitive purloined information – to the intelligence agencies of foreign nations.
The contempt the defendants and their lawyers have for the very concept of American national security permeates this case like a bad smell, and is enough to make any patriot – heck, any ordinary American – sick to his or her stomach. To give some further indication of the unsavory flavor of this case, I'll only note the latest wrinkle: in a recent court session, defense lawyers argued that the information their clients are accused of stealing was already known to the Israelis. This has been another of what I call the "chutzpah defense" mounted by Rosen and Weissman's legal team: the Israelis don't need to steal our secrets, they aver, because they already know everything worth knowing anyway. As Josh Gerstein, a former writer for the now-permanently-set New York Sun, puts it on his blog:
"Both sides in the case seemed to agree that if information came from Israel, even if it passed through U.S. Government hands, it could not be a basis for the charges against Rosen and Weissman. That seemed puzzling, since the mere fact that information came from a foreign government is usually a good enough reason to get it classified."
The government has gone easy on the AIPAC defendants, and their former employers. An apparent attempt was made by some in the Justice Department to indict not only Rosen and Weissman, but AIPAC itself. This was quashed by the chief prosecutor, Paul J. McNulty – who has since gone on to graze in greener pastures – and the case was limited from the outset: only Franklin, Rosen, and Weissman were charged.
As Grant F. Smith shows in his recent book, AIPAC's organizational forerunner as Israel's Capitol Hill amen corner – the AZC, American Zionist Council – was financed almost entirely by overseas sources, i.e. Israel, and yet was not required to register as an agent of a foreign government. Particularly fascinating is his original research into the findings of Senator J. William Fulbright, remembered today as an acerbic critic of the Vietnam war, who investigated and uncovered financial conduits running from Israeli government agencies to AIPAC in its AZC incarnation.
Everybody knows AIPAC is indeed an agent of a foreign government, i.e. the Israelis. What most don't know, however, is that, unlike all others, it is exempt from complying with the Foreign Agents Registration Act. This immunity – the legal genesis of which Grant traces in his fascinating account – created an opening for the Israeli government and its various overseas agencies to act with impunity within our borders. This includes not just advocacy, but also providing the organizational mask behind which intelligence-burglars like Rosen, Weissman, and god-knows-who-else are hiding.
AIPAC quickly threw Rosen and Weissman overboard, the apparent price for avoiding a wider prosecution, and Rosen's quest to reemerge found limited sympathy on his old stomping grounds, the Washington policy wonk circuit. The Forward reports:
"Rosen has been looking for his way back to the foreign policy scene for a long while, but he found that in most cases, doors of think tanks and advisory groups were closed. "They'd pat me on my back and say it is not fair, but there are only a few that agree to stand up," Rosen said, praising the Middle East Forum for 'having the courage' to reach out to him."
While the presumption of innocence is obligatory in a narrow legal sense, one has only to read the indictment to see that Rosen and Weissman not only stole classified information, but knew perfectly well they were breaking the law, and went to great pains to avoid detection. At one point, the indictment has the defendants shifting meeting locations three times, going from restaurant to restaurant in the clear knowledge that they were likely being followed. Document exchanges were avoided: Franklin briefed his handlers verbally. Recordings of these conversations are the core of the government's case, and their substance is highly sensitive. Wrangling over what to play in open court has delayed the trial for four years. In playing for time, the defense is hoping that the incoming administration will rein in the Justice Department and quash the case, and there is good reason to suspect that this is true.
In any case, what kind of a public policy organization would hire Rosen, in hopes of influencing U.S. foreign policy? The Middle East Forum is a hate-the-Muslims "educational" organization, run by Daniel Pipes. Pipes and his pals have followed the time-honored traditions of smear artists everywhere in maintaining an academic blacklist, "Campus Watch," which keeps tabs on college professors deemed insufficiently friendly to Israeli government policies. Pipes believes a "substantial" number of American Muslims are plotting to overthrow the government and establish an Islamist theocracy in America, and that this represents a real threat: it's all downhill from there. In one of his recent screeds, Pipes attacks Barack Obama for his supposed "links" to ... Sirhan Sirhan, Robert F. Kennedy's assassin. Yikes.
M. J. Rosenberg, blogging at Talking Points Memo, asks: "Are these people crazy?" and concludes they're "crazy/irrelevant rather than crazy/dangerous," and yet Rosen wielded enormous influence in Washington, at one point. Jeffrey Goldberg, over at the New Yorker, relates a conversation with Rosen:
"He pushed a napkin across the table. 'You see this napkin?' he said. 'In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin.'"
Rosen may have personally fallen on hard times, having to take up with a loony like Pipes, but one has to remember that the organizational framework that spawned his treason is not only alive and well – but it could still deliver those 70 senatorial signatures on a napkin with the greatest of ease.
Crazy, yes – and dangerous, too.