March 5, 2009
Trials can be dangerous things. And not just for the accused. They can make or break prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges. And even a vaunted lobby.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its leaders could be the biggest losers in a case that threatens to expose the group’s inner secrets.
The oft-delayed trial of two former AIPAC staffers charged with passing classified information to journalists and the Israeli government is now expected to begin May 27, but that could easily slip, and don’t be surprised if it never happens, given a series of prosecutor setbacks.
Two of those setbacks occurred last month when prosecutors lost their attempt to block the former AIPAC staffers from using critical materials and witnesses in their defense.
The government case has been losing steam as a result of these and other court rulings. Many of the Justice Department professionals responsible for bringing the case are gone, most notably the chief prosecutor, who quit last year to go into private practice, a sign some see as a lack of faith in a high-profile case.
The case was brought by the secrecy-obsessed Bush administration, which had vowed to plug all leaks unless Dick Cheney authorized them to go after his enemies.
This case was on tenuous legal ground from the start. It was the first time the 1917 espionage law was invoked against civilian nongovernment employees who distributed information they received from the government.
In the face of an increasingly weak case, the Justice Department may try to avoid an embarrassing loss by dropping it under the cover of protecting classified information from public exposure, as it has done in similar cases.
Although AIPAC claims it has nothing to do with the convoluted case, it is also on trial, in a way. The organization fired the pair and said they were rogues acting beneath the group’s standards. That will be shot full of holes from all directions in court, whether in the criminal case or in a likely civil suit by the defendants claiming damage to their reputations and careers.
The mere threat of a multimillion-dollar civil suit could prompt a very generous settlement offer from AIPAC in exchange for a vow of silence from the former staffers. But don’t worry; AIPAC can easily afford it.
Soon after the FBI raided AIPAC offices, the organization launched a fund-raising campaign to defend against any charges, and the appeals for money didn’t stop when it fired the pair. Since the scandal broke in 2004, AIPAC’s fund-raising juggernaut has hauled in so much dough that one senior staffer told me that “it’s coming in faster than we know what to do with it.”
JTA quoted tax records showing AIPAC raised $86 million in 2007, doubling 2003’s $43 million. Not all of that money was a result of the espionage case, but many millions were.
In cutting loose the pair, AIPAC insisted it had no idea what they were doing. Not so, say insiders, former colleagues, sources close to the defense, and others familiar with the organization.
One of the topics AIPAC won’t want discussed, say these sources, is how closely it coordinated with Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1990s, when he led the Israeli Likud opposition and later when he was prime minister, to impede the Oslo peace process being pressed by President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.
That could not only validate AIPAC’s critics, who accuse it of being a branch of the Likud, but also lead to an investigation of violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
“What they don’t want out is that even though they publicly sounded like they were supporting the Oslo process, they were working all the time to undermine it,” said a well-informed source.
“After Rabin came in in 1992 and said he wanted to make peace and signed the Oslo accords, and the U.S. was supposed to pay the tab, every restriction on all political and financial dealings [by the Palestinians] came out of our office,” said the insider. “We took full advantage of every lapse by [Yasser] Arafat and the Palestinians to put on more restrictions and limit relations,” the source added.
In addition to cooperating with the Israeli opposition, AIPAC worked closely with congressional Republicans to undermine the Clinton administration’s Middle East policy, several sources confirmed.
If this case goes to trial, civil or criminal, the inner workings of AIPAC will be aired, and it will be clear that top professional and lay leaders were kept fully informed, said a former official.
Defense lawyers are expected to contend both staffers were following routine practices not only condoned but encouraged by the organization’s leadership. The FBI has evidence showing that when juicy material was collected it was shared with the higher-ups.
Will the organization want to go through discovery, depositions, interrogatories, subpoenas, and compelled testimony under oath about all the elements of this case? That could be the key to very generous out-of-court settlements for Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman.
That will leave unanswered the biggest question of all: Why was this case brought in the first place?
Douglas M. Bloomfield is the president of Bloomfield Associates Inc., a Washington lobbying and consulting firm. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.