In 1963, the American Zionist Council (AZC) — regarded as the parent organization of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — was under intense pressure from the Justice Department of the Kennedy administration to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act due to the fact that it received funding from the Zionist Agency of Israel, a branch of the Israeli government. AZC resisted, making a plea to Justice officials that if it complied this “would eventually destroy the Zionist movement.” No doubt the memory still haunts AIPAC.
The upcoming trial of former AIPAC officials, Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, accused of passing classified documents to Israeli officials, has escalated fears that a thorough examination of the organization’s operations might raise unwelcome questions about the nature of the pro-Israel lobby’s ties.
For that reason, as the Rep. Jane Harman story unfolds, one of the key unanswered questions is the identity of the Israeli agent that the California representative was taped talking to. If a request to intercede with the Justice Department on behalf of Rosen and Weissman, seeking lesser charges than the ones they still face, came from an AIPAC official, that would be one thing. If that official also happened to be an intelligence agent for the Israeli government, then the case has much farther reaching implications.
Interestingly (as David Corn pointed out), when interviewed on NPR this week, Harman initially claimed to have little recollection of the conversation that was wiretapped. “I can’t recall with any specificity a conversation I may have had four years ago.” But later in the interview, she was quite specific in recalling, “The person I was talking to was an American citizen.”
“I didn’t talk to some foreigner,” Harman said. But what about an Israeli agent who also happened to be an American citizen?
If the Israeli government, in contravention with a long-standing agreement not to do so, is in fact conducting intelligence operations inside the United States, it’s hard to imagine that it would not recruit American-Israelis for this purpose. Indeed, staff inside AIPAC with their excellent access to Capital Hill and the highest levels of recent administrations, would seem to be in an ideal position for gathering political intelligence.
Since 1985, after Jonathan Pollard, a US citizen, was convicted of spying on the US for Israel, Israel agreed that it would not conduct intelligence operations inside the United States. Whether it kept to that agreement is clearly open to question. Indeed, that this remains a live issue is apparent from the fact that in 2004 Israel secretly acknowledged to American officials that Pollard was not an isolated case.
In The Forward, in the wake of the Harman accusations, Nathan Guttman writes :
for close observers of the national security establishment, the real news was the extent of its suspicions of American Jewish supporters of Israel — up to and including its willingness to wiretap a member of Congress.
“It’s rooted deep in the system,” an official with an American Jewish organization said, “and it comes from the bottom up.”
The leaked transcripts hint, among other things, at the security establishment’s continued search for an Israeli mole that some reportedly believe remained uncaught after Jonathan Pollard, an American Jewish civilian naval intelligence analyst, was discovered engaged in massive espionage for Israel in 1985. More generally, the wiretap reflects the security establishment’s continuing concern about leaks of classified information to pro-Israel activists and Israeli agents who have shown themselves adept at obtaining nonpublic information from the government.
“We know that we are closely watched, that people might be listening to our phone calls. This is our working premise,” said a former senior Israeli official who was based in Washington in recent years. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said he believed that suspicion toward Israel was prevalent in the military and intelligence establishments but was not common at the political and diplomatic levels.
The disclosure of the Harman wiretaps comes at a time when the government’s most elaborate attempt to crack down on alleged wrongdoings by pro-Israel activists is at a crossroads. The prosecution of two former AIPAC lobbyists, which began more than four years ago and is scheduled to go to trial June 2, is under review and, according to press reports, might be dropped altogether. The conversations involving Harman focused on attempts to put an end to the legal proceedings against the two former AIPAC staffers, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman.
Although no formal explanation was provided from the National Security Agency for eavesdropping on the Harman conversation, it is widely believed that the wiretap was part of the investigation into the AIPAC case.
According to court records, wiretaps and surveillance in the Rosen-Weissman case began as early as 1999. From the indictment, which is now being reviewed by the attorney general’s office, it is clear that attempts to stop the flow of information to pro-Israel activists led to a wide- ranging counterintelligence operation in which Israeli diplomats and pro-Israel lobbyists were being followed and their conversations monitored. These conversations involved senior government officials who had been in touch with the subjects of the investigation. The U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia reviewed transcripts of these wiretaps in lengthy pretrial proceedings, and parts of them are expected to be presented if the case reaches trial.
Stephen Green, a Vermont-based writer who has chronicled the counterintelligence spats between the United States and Israel since the late 1970s, said the mistrust toward Israel stems from agents working on the cases and not from an overall anti-Israel ideology. “This has nothing to do with politics or with Israeli foreign policy. These are people who deal with these issues on a daily basis and become very, very upset,” Green said.
If the Justice Department does indeed drop the case against Rosen and Weissman, the person who arguably has the deepest personal interest in this is Larry Franklin, the former Defense Department official who was sentenced to serve 12 and a half years in prison for passing classified information to the AIPAC staffers without authorization.
Although he was sentenced in January 2006, Franklin has yet to be imprisoned. At the time of his conviction, he agreed to assist prosecutors and, according to David Frum, currently works as “a parking lot attendant in West Virginia.” Even so, he has been able to retain the services of one of Washington DC’s highest profile attorneys and no doubt if AIPAC dodges this bullet, Franklin will be wondering why or if he still deserves to go behind bars.
As for Representative Harman, since all sections of the media and fellow members of Congress have happily convinced themselves that this is a story about egregious government overreach and the need for diligent intelligence oversight, the chances that we’ll ever learn the identity of the American-Israeli agent she spoke to now appear slim. Unless of course there’s another useful leak…