Saturday, March 26, 2005

The AIPAC Investigation -- Current State of Play

I know you're taking one for the team here, Steve, but trust me, we'll take care of you. I already got a call from one of our board members, Bob Donorwitz, out in LA. He's in the publishing business -- will put you on as a VP at more than double your current salary, and not much work. As far as sentencing goes, it's just illegal receipt of classified information, not espionage -- you'll be out in a year or two, maybe not even get any jail time at all. I know you'd like the try an entrapment defense, Steve, but our lawyers tell us that the FBI has all their i's dotted and t's crossed -- they know how to do a sting without running afoul of the case law on entrapment. If you take this to trial, not only are you going to get your ass handed to you, but you're going to expose the organization to a lot of public scrutiny. They'll introduce the wiretap transcripts as evidence -- a lot of peripheral stuff. It'll get quoted on the evening news. Talking to folks on the Hill about Iraq, Iran. Steve, you understand this, we're not going to be nearly as effective if we get this sort of bright light shined on us, if we're put under a microscope. Trust me, Steve, we'll take care of you. Just don't screw us.

The above conversation is fictitous, of course, a literary device -- but I think it accurately illustrates the concerns AIPAC has, and the strategies they'll employ, to try to limit the damage from the FBI investigation. Their main focus will be political, rather than legal -- to minimize the amount of internal information about their activities which is disclosed to the public, because if everything the FBI knows about them gets out, they won't be very politically effective afterwards.

Let me recap briefly what is known publicly of the history of this:

On June 26, 2003, Larry Franklin (a career Pentagon official on Doug Feith's staff) was observed by FBI surveillance disclosing classified information on a proposed policy initiative to destabilize Iran at the Tivoli Restaurant in Arlington, Virginia. The AIPAC investigation apparently had been ongoing for some time, which is why there were FBI agents tailing the AIPAC staffers. Afterwards, as one would expect, the FBI obtained a wiretap warrant to monitor Larry Franklin, and picked him up in May 2004 disclosing classified information to Adam Ciralsky, a CBS News producer who had previously been an attorney with the CIA.

In June 2004, the FBI confronted Franklin about the evidence they had on him, and eventually obtained his agreement to cooperate in the investigation. Franklin then passed information, on July 21, 2004, to an AIPAC staffer at a Virginia mall, purporting to be on Iranian threats to Israeli agents operating in Iraq, which was then passed to Israeli intelligence -- a classic "sting" operation. Franklin also apparently called several other prominent neocons, including Richard Perle, Ahmed Chalabi's American advisor Francis Brooke, and Adam Ciralsky of CBS, who appear not to have taken the bait. The evidence of passing classified information to the Israelis gave the FBI the probable cause they needed to search AIPAC's offices and copy their computer files, which was accomplished in two raids in September and December 2004. Two AIPAC staffers, Director of Research Steve Rosen, and Iran expert Keith Weissman, were put on paid leave. Franklin himself apparently was eventually allowed to return to work at the Defense Department, but in another job and stripped of his security clearance (such "makework jobs" are a frequent result of government security clearance actions against career officials, since it's so hard to actually fire someone). It's also known that Franklin stopped cooperating with the FBI in late summer 2004, and retained Washington superlawyer Plato Cacheris as his defense counsel. (Franklin isn't rich - who is funding this?) Custody of the investigation was transferred last fall from the FBI's director of counterintelligence, David Szady, to Paul McNulty, a federal prosecutor in Alexandria, Virginia, and they took it to a grand jury in January 2005. The FBI doesn't usually go to a grand jury unless they're pretty sure they can obtain an indictment -- over 95% of federal grand jury hearings result in criminal charges. (Ed Black, the journalist who wrote the article I linked to in The Forward, is quite friendly to AIPAC, and has written sympathetically in the past about Ciralsky's security clearance fight with the CIA.)

AIPAC's Likely Strategy
The main thing to understand about this case is that it has both legal and political levels. AIPAC's legal problems are only half the story -- they're also going to be extremely worried about having a spotlight shined on their activities, now that the FBI has been "inside their heads" for a couple of years. And, as Ed Black points out, it's political for the other side as well -- I agree with him that a lot of this can be seen as Washington's career national security bureaucracy using legal techniques to expose what many officials believe is undue Israeli (and pro-Israeli Americans) influence on U.S. foreign policy -- linked to the push for war in Iraq in 2001-2003, and to the current push for military action against Iran. It's also pretty clear that the motive for Larry Franklin (or whoever sent him) to pass the classified information on Iran policy wasn't so much espionage as it was to facilitate AIPAC lobbying in collusion with neocon hawks in the Pentagon advocating a policy of "regime change" against Iran.

It might be possible for Rosen and Weissman to mount a defense based on entrapment, but this seldom works in FBI stings, since the FBI knows the case law on entrapment, and makes sure to hew closely to "sting" techniques which legal precedent supports. But with the right jury, they might have a chance. For AIPAC, though, this would be a disaster. AIPAC is successful because the overwhelming majority of non-Jewish Americans have never heard of them. If the details of their activities on Capitol Hill were public, they wouldn't be nearly as effective. (For those of you who oppose my views -- I think even you would admit this to yourselves if you think about it. Would you want snippets of AIPAC officials discussing Iraq and Iran with congressional staff played on the evening news? Of course you wouldn't.)

AIPAC's strategy is likely to involve pushing for a plea bargain, to avoid a deeply embarrassing trial. The best case scenario for them would involve a gulity plea to illegal receipt of classified information by two of their employees, a couple days of press coverage, and an attempt to spin it as the result of (as they would have you see it) antisemitism among FBI agents, particularly David Szady.

One of the big unknowns about this case is what else they have found which hasn't been leaked to the press yet. This investigation has apparently been going on for years, and it's quite possible there's other people in potential legal jeopardy. Several people from Doug Feith's operation at the Pentagon have reportedly retained defense counsel.

The other wildcard is the issue of compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which requires lobbyists representing foreign interests to register with the Justice Department. AIPAC always has maintained that they are representing Americans, not the Israeli government, but they could be charged as an organization with failure to register if the FBI has evidence to the contrary.

Why do I follow this?
The reason I started blogging about this is that I think Americans have a right to discuss our foreign policy -- to have an open debate -- and that the diversion of U.S. military action in the post-9/11 era from hunting al-Qaeda to the invasion of Iraq (and now maybe military action against Iran) was heavily influenced by people in our government whose ties to Israel influence their thinking. I'm not the first person to say this -- actually, one of Condi Rice's top lieutenants at the State Department made a similar observation before he came back into government.

I understand that a lot of people in the American Jewish community are highly uncomfortable with any public dicussion of this -- on the logic that if that taboo is broken, it's a slippery slope to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and such. Frankly, though, I just don't buy that. All that folks like me are saying is that we should be able to discuss the Israel lobby the same way we can discuss other realities of American politics -- no different than pointing out the ability of the Miami Cuban lobby (which I know doesn't represent all Cuban-Americans views) in getting the U.S. to ignore our commercial interests and maintain an embargo against Cuba, or the influence of the Greek-American lobby on the balance of military assistance between Greece and Turkey, etc. And as I've said before, the taboo against discussing this is a large part of the reason we didn't have more debate in Congress before going to war in Iraq. AIPAC didn't formally take a position, but everyone who has friends on Capitol Hill knows that it wasn't any secret that they were pushing for votes for the resolution "unofficially." (The same way that they are now publicly supporting aid to the Palestinian Authority, but having Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) run interference for them, "unofficially." Kudos to Eric Alterman for the scoop on this.)

Before we ask Maj. Jones at al-Udeid to lead his squadron in raids against Parchin, Natanz, and Bushehr, we need to talk about this. Whose interests are we fighting for? Is America as threatened by Iran as Israel is? Maybe we are. But we need to be able to have this conversation.

(One interesting thing to note, my blog is now number fifteen in Google search results for "AIPAC," and I'm now starting to get a substantial number of web hits from the Google and Yahoo search engines, so as soon as the plea bargain or indictments are announced, and every smalltown newspaper editor, blogger, etc, in the country starts Googling AIPAC, it's going to get a lot of hits. If you agree with my position on having an open debate, that's a good thing -- and it's really my whole strategy behind the blog in the first place.)

PS- If you don't want to register to view the articles in The Forward, has a working password.