Jews Fear Fallout On Fed Spy Probe

Serious consequences even if no charges are filed.

James D. Besser - The Jewish Week - Sept. 3, 2004

This week's media sensation, centering on allegations that the primary pro-Israel lobby in Washington passed secret information to Jerusalem, has left Jewish leaders uncertain about the motives behind the reported federal spy probe and deeply concerned about its consequences - even if no charges are filed.

Early in the week, pro-Israel forces, backed by powerful political friends, mounted a major damage control effort. But that was impaired by a lack of knowledge about exactly what and whom the federal government is targeting.

Jewish leaders pointed to similar media frenzies about alleged Israeli spies in the past that fizzled, and some expressed the expectation that this week's controversies - which began with a CBS News expose on Friday asserting that federal authorities were investigating a possible Israeli "mole" inside the Pentagon - would be no different.

"For years, since Pollard, we've seen a slew of leaks, innuendo, accusations, and none of them ever amounted to anything, except for a little news coverage that gives a black eye to Israel or to the Jewish community or to both," said Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman, referring to Jonathan Jay Pollard, whose 1985 arrest for spying for Israel continues to shadow Jews in sensitive government positions. "This isn't new. It's important people understand that."

But on Tuesday there were reports federal prosecutors in Alexandria, Va. - the site of several high-profile spy and terrorism trials in recent years - were nearing a decision on legal action. The Jerusalem Post reported that computer data belonging to a top official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby, has been searched.

Two AIPAC officials, Steven Rosen, the group's longtime foreign policy director, and Keith Weissman, an analyst specializing in Iran, have reportedly been questioned by the FBI.

The controversy left Jewish leaders with some disconcerting questions, like why a political officer of the Israeli embassy was being followed by government investigators. It was that surveillance that reportedly ensnared the focal point of the investigation, Larry Franklin, a mid-level Pentagon analyst who specializes in Iran policy.

Reports suggest that Franklin gave over to AIPAC officials U.S. documents dealing with alternatives for the U.S. in dealing with the growing nuclear threat from Iran, and that the AIPAC officials passed the information on to Israel.

"The first question I have is this: Do we trail the representatives of the embassies of other friendly countries?" asked Shoshana Bryen, special projects director for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), a Jewish group with close ties to the military and intelligence communities in both countries. "If not, why was he being trailed?"

The Israeli representative is Naor Gilon, a political adviser at the Israeli embassy in Washington. Israeli officials this week expressed concern that Gilon apparently was the focus of U.S. surveillance, but they would not seek an explanation from Washington, according to Israeli press reports.

Those reports said Gilon was having lunch with a top AIPAC official when they were joined by Franklin, a non-Jew who, as an Air Force Reserve officer, once worked in the U.S. defense attaché's office Tel Aviv.

Such meetings are routine for U.S., Israeli and AIPAC officials.

"If they weren't doing that, they weren't doing their jobs," said Neal Sher, a former AIPAC executive director and Justice Department official "I was surprised to read the suggestion these meetings were being surveiled by the FBI. That's a big unanswered question in all this."

Federal authorities have refused to identify the original target of their investigations.

Jewish leaders suggested that the leak that produced the CBS report could have been part of the ongoing battle within the defense and military establishments over the role of several high-profile neo-conservatives, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith - both lightning rods for criticism over the administration's war in Iraq.

There is also speculation that the original leak may have been part of a preemptive effort by anti-neo-con forces inside the government to prevent a U.S. confrontation with Iran by suggesting an improper Israeli role in setting U.S. policy on the issue.

In a series of conference calls since the initial story, Jewish leaders tried to work out a strategy for minimizing the impact of reports that could damage U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation, the effort to slow Iran's rush to nuclear weaponry and the careers of countless Jewish defense and intelligence personnel, even if the investigation does not result in arrests and convictions.

But "we are operating with almost no real information," said a longtime pro-Israel leader. "The information we are getting is incomplete and contradictory, and there may be a lot of disinformation out there, as well."

In the conference calls, Jewish leaders debated whether to aggressively challenge news accounts most considered overblown - or to keep a lower profile, responding only to direct enquiries, and hope the sensational headlines die down.

One participant in a call organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations described the evolving strategy as "a holding action until we know more. You don't want to help the story grow, or to keep it on the front pages, but you also don't want the misinformation to spread."

AIPAC officials, who said they have been cooperating with federal authorities, responded aggressively, saying that none of their employees did anything improper.

Speaking at a Republican National Convention event, AIPAC president Bernice Manocherian called the charges "outrageous as well as baseless. They will not dissuade us from exercising our right as American citizens to be involved in the political process."

AIPAC leaders also called for - and received - statements of support from other Jewish groups, including Hillel, the ADL and the National Jewish Democratic Council, and from top political leaders.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) said in a statement that "AIPAC is an organization of American patriots committed to promoting America's interest in strengthening ties with our democratic ally Israel. ... AIPAC deserves our gratitude and support for its important service and devotion to our country."

Laudatory statements also came from Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the Senate majority leader, Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the Minority Leader and Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the House majority whip, among others.

In the communal conference calls on Monday and Tuesday, AIPAC leaders admitted they had been worried that the sudden negative publicity might lead politicians to shun their convention events. That didn't happen. AIPAC officials and independent sources say attendance by political figures met or exceeded expectations.

"The response was absolutely remarkable at the convention," said Lonnie Kaplan, a former AIPAC president. "All our events had greater attendance than we expected. Nobody canceled, and we had many expressions of support."

But analysts say the real impact on the pro-Israel giant won't be apparent until the government lays out its case. "If, as it appears, AIPAC was doing nothing more than engaging in routine meetings with government decision makers, they won't be hurt at all," said a former AIPAC leader. "If there are substantive charges against them that look credible, it could lead a stain that would be hard to remove."

Jewish leaders are also hoping to put the controversy in context as just the latest in a long series of leaks pointing the finger at Israel. Such leaks generally have not been backed up by facts or with legal action.

But even if reports of a spy scandal are eventually refuted and AIPAC is cleared of any wrongdoing, the sensational headlines could have negative consequences.

"It feeds the basic belief that there's something wrong with routine working relations between Israeli and American officials," said JINSA's Shoshana Bryen. Such meetings are critical elements in the close strategic partnership between the two allies, she said.

It could also complicate the joint effort to deal with the mounting threat posed by Iran's accelerating nuclear weapons program since press accounts suggest Franklin may have supplied the Israelis with a U.S. working paper on Iran.

"Iran is always trying to deflect attention by making Israel the focus in its dealings with this country," Bryen said. "This makes it harder to keep Israel out of the middle."

And that, she said, may make it harder for U.S. officials to craft workable strategies for dealing with the Iranian threat. n

End-Of-Session Paralysis

Congress will return from its August recess on Sept. 7 to a crushingly crowded workload topped by efforts to restructure the nation's troubled intelligence services.

But the biggest item on lawmakers' to-do lists - adjourning so they can get to the really serious business of getting reelected - means that little is actually likely to get done.

One immediate result: most appropriations bills and any serious decisions about the burgeoning budget deficit and the growing demands on the federal treasury are almost certain to be left hanging.

Jewish activists concerned about a looming funding crunch for vital social and health programs say most spending decisions will be put off until next year, with lawmakers passing a series of continuing resolutions instead of detailed appropriations bills.

Groups such as the United Jewish Communities continue to hope that a homeland security measure that would give a boost to non-profit organizations deemed vulnerable in this new age of terrorism will be one of the survivors.

Authorization for that measure - cut in half from the original $100 million - has cleared the Senate Government Affairs Committee; backers hope the measure will go to the floor in early September.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) are pushing an amendment to an appropriations bill that would provide funding for the program; that could come to the floor as early as next week.

Despite the end-of-session paralysis gripping Congress, the UJC's Chuck Konigsberg said he is hopeful the measure, which could help synagogues and Jewish schools cope with astronomical security costs, will pass.

"I can't see them going into elections without passing a homeland security bill," he said.

But other Jewish groups, including the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, have expressed reservations about the measure on church-state grounds.

UJC is also closely following a highway bill passed by both Houses that includes increased funding for senior transportation programs. Konigsberg said his group is asking House-Senate conferees to approve the Senate-passed version, which would triple funding for the critical programs over six years.

And UJC and other Jewish groups are closely following congressional efforts to scale back the administration's proposed cuts in Section 8 housing, cuts that could have a devastating impact on the nation's poor-including many Jews.

  • See Also: The Franklin/AIPAC Spy Case Page