The Big Chill
A chill has taken hold lately among both government officials and the US media. It comes in the wake of a US district court's decision to jail a New York Times reporter for refusing to reveal to a grand jury her sources in the Bush Administration and the FBI investigation of a Pentagon Iran analyst for leaking classified information to former officials with the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC. As a result, those who engage in what have long been standard Washington practices--reporters ferreting out information from government sources, those sources confiding in policy associates, lobbyists and reporters--have become increasingly inhibited in carrying out their jobs.
Even as a press frenzy surrounds a grand jury investigation of whether top presidential advisor Karl Rove leaked a CIA officer's identity to the press, unease in the Washington policy and journalistic communities is also evident. In the wake of Times reporter Judith Miller's jailing and in fear of government prosecution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer has decided, on the advice of its lawyers, not to publish two major articles based on leaked government information. At a recent gathering in a suburban Maryland living room, the conversation among a handful of foreign policy experts and reporters was about the sense of fear and clampdown. One government expert was convinced office phone conversations were regularly monitored by higher-ups, and reporters noted that senior government sources, intimidated by the Franklin investigation, have become more tight-lipped.
While the Franklin/AIPAC investigation is often described as a counterintelligence case, it too is really about government leaks, and the Bush Administration's determination to plug them. On September 9, 2001, the New York Times published a story by then-State Department correspondent Jane Perlez, who reported a major shift in what had been the Bush Administration's rejection of the Clinton Administration's deep engagement in trying to broker a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. Perlez reported that after months of refusing to meet with Yasir Arafat, George W. Bush would grant the Palestinian leader his first audience with the new US President at an upcoming UN General Assembly gathering in New York "if progress were made in high-level talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis."
That meeting between Bush and Arafat never happened. Two days after the Times story appeared, Al Qaeda terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing almost 3,000 people. In the aftermath of those attacks, few people recalled that for a brief moment in the late summer of 2001, the Bush Administration had considered meeting with Arafat and deepening its political involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Everyone forgot, except the FBI. According to a recent report by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, it was that September 2001 news article, based on leaks of sensitive Administration deliberations, that prompted then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to demand an FBI leak investigation that has since taken on a dramatic life of its own. Most recently, the investigation has led to the federal grand jury indictment, unsealed last month, of Pentagon Iran desk officer Larry Franklin on charges involving conspiracy to disclose classified national defense information to unauthorized recipients. It is expected to lead to indictments, under the Espionage Act, of two recently dismissed employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee for engaging in a conspiracy to receive and pass on to other unauthorized recipients what they knew to be classified information. They are AIPAC's former director of foreign policy research, Steve Rosen, and his deputy, Iran specialist Keith Weissman. Among those the FBI reportedly wants to interview as a potential witness in its investigation is a Washington Post journalist who was allegedly briefed on some of the classified information by the former AIPAC officials--information those officials had allegedly received from Franklin in an FBI-arranged sting. In addition, Franklin, Rosen and Weissman are all alleged to have relayed classified national defense information to an Israeli Embassy official. It is this latter connection that has raised talk of espionage.
How does an investigation of a leak to the news media turn into an indictment that alleges a conspiracy to disclose US national security information illegally to, among others, a foreign official, with more indictments expected? The evidence available in the Franklin indictment and other sources does not seem to show the intention to commit espionage on behalf of Israel so much as the desire to cultivate Washington alliances that Franklin, Rosen and Weissman considered useful in the promotion of their own policy positions in the US government. As with most administrations, in the Bush Administration leaks have been employed by bureaucratic warriors on all sides of the heated Mideast policy debates to influence sensitive deliberations and take stabs at their opponents. It's worth noting that President Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, has been revealed as a suspect in a federal grand jury investigation (the same one in which Times reporter Miller has been jailed) of the circumstances by which a CIA officer's identity was leaked to Washington reporters in an apparent Administration effort to discredit her husband, Joseph Wilson, a former diplomat critical of the President's Iraq War policy.
In interviewing several sources knowledgeable about the investigation, what emerges is a complex portrait of Washington Mideast policy-making at a critical time, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, when there were near-constant interagency battles over the direction of US policy, not just on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but toward Iran and Iranian-backed forces in Iraq as well. What also emerges is a more detailed picture of the modus operandi of a brilliant and, some say, ruthless bureaucratic infighter at the country's premiere Mideast lobbying group, who was emboldened by his long relationships with figures in and around the Bush Administration and the Washington scene to behave almost as an unofficial diplomatic entity in his own right.
The fact that that brilliant player, Steve Rosen, could become the target of a counterintelligence investigation during this Republican Administration is rich in irony. Several former Rosen associates describe him as a genius at political strategy and subterfuge, the Karl Rove of Jewish-American politics, who helped engineer the lobby group's shift to the right on the American political spectrum; helped broker a strategic alliance between the pro-Israel lobby and Republican far-right legislators, including Senator Jesse Helms, in the 1980s; and who marshaled his organization's resources to conduct de facto intelligence operations of his own.
As former associates and AIPAC officials describe it, those operations were replete with enemies' lists of journalists and public figures. Rosen sent AIPAC interns as spies to take notes on the political views of other members of the small world of Jewish community political activism. One former AIPAC intern told The Nation that he was sent by Rosen to Arab-American conferences disguised as a WASP-y, pro-Palestinian liberal to find out which US Congressional candidates the attending groups were supporting. Former associates recite a list of AIPAC officials with Democratic staff connections on Capitol Hill who were purged from the organization in part, they allege, because of Rosen's strategic efforts to move AIPAC decisively to the right. (Sources close to Rosen say that he wasn't acting on his own in any of these endeavors, but as part of the organization. A source close to AIPAC downplays these activities and suggests that many of them ended years ago.)
Rosen's "entire goal was to shift the organization away from a heavy reliance on Democrats and switch it to Republicans," says M.J. Rosenberg, director of the Washington office of the Israel Policy Forum and the former editor of an AIPAC weekly newsletter who overlapped with Rosen at the organization in the early 1980s. "Why? Because he thought, maybe correctly, that the wave of the future was the right wing of the Republican Party."