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This weekend, several thousand people will gather at the Convention Center in Washington, DC, for the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC. This year, like other years, a high-powered slate of speakers will address the conference, including Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and many members of Congress. But unlike other years, this AIPAC conference is being held under the cloud of a criminal investigation. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:
The growing criminal investigation has all the makings of a great spy novel, including top-secret documents, wiretapping, sting operations and a powerful organization that shuns limelight. The saga first came to light about two years ago and initially focused on three men: Larry Franklin, a midlevel officer in the Pentagon's Near East and South Asia Bureau, and two members of AIPAC--Keith Weissman, its senior Iran analyst, and Steve Rosen, AIPAC's director of research.
Ron Kampeas is the respected Washington bureau chief for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency who spent many years as a journalist in Israel. He said the turning point in the case came when Franklin met the two AIPAC men at an Italian restaurant in Arlington, Virginia.
Mr. RON KAMPEAS (Jewish Telegraphic Agency): And an FBI agent was watching them. And whether they were tracking Franklin or whether they had been tracking Rosen, it wasn't clear. But certainly that's what led the FBI to move in on Franklin and the information that he gave, the verbal information that he gave Rosen and Weissman in that restaurant, which apparently had to do with a potential attack on US forces in northern Iraq.
NORTHAM: Franklin has been charged with a single count of disclosing classified defense information. A 10-age affidavit written by an FBI special agent assigned to a counterespionage team says that the disclosed information came from documents stamped with the words `top secret' in capital letters. More than 80 such documents were found in Franklin's home and office. FBI officials later confirmed that it was AIPAC's Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman who received the information from Franklin. FBI agents have since raided AIPAC's headquarters twice, searching Rosen's and Weissman's offices. The Justice Department confirmed that the investigation is ongoing, but will not add any more details.
AIPAC initially backed Rosen and Weissman, but then in April dismissed the two men, and since tried to distance itself from them. NPR contacted AIPAC twice. The organization said it would not discuss the investigation on the record. But a source inside the organization said that AIPAC had been told by the government that neither it nor any current employees are targets of the ongoing FBI investigation. But the JTA's Kampeas doesn't by that.
Mr. KAMPEAS: They're saying that they're not being targeted because they got rid of Rosen and Weissman. You know, Steve Rosen is AIPAC, AIPAC is Steve Rosen. And anybody in AIPAC would have told you that, you know, six months ago. There was no distinction.
NORTHAM: The 62-year-old Rosen is a larger-than-life figure who first joined AIPAC in 1982. Kampeas says before Rosen arrived, most lobbying was done through Congress, but that he started making inroads to the upper echelons of the administration--the White House, Pentagon, and State Department. Kampeas says Rosen's strength was the amount of information he was able to garner and solicit. That helped turn AIPAC into one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the capital. But Douglas Bloomfield, AIPAC's legislative director throughout the 1980s, says Rosen's arrival also marked another change at the organization.
Mr. DOUGLAS BLOOMFIELD (Former AIPAC Director): There was a culture of secrecy that descended over it in recent years, that considered lobbying some kind of nefarious night flower that could only operate or bloom in the darkness. I think that has created a lot of suspicion, concern and maybe even antipathy totally unnecessarily.
NORTHAM: Critics say the other thing AIPAC generates is fear. Many people interviewed for this story imparted strongly felt opinions for and against the organization, but would not go on the record. Critics say that AIPAC has a well-earned reputation of mobilizing forces and resources against any member of Congress who votes against Israel. They point, for example, to former Illinois Republican Congressman Paul Findley, who they say lost to Richard Durbin after AIPAC heavily financed Durbin's campaign in 1982.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine, says AIPAC's reputation has been a cloud over any dealings his organization has had in Washington.
Rabbi MICHAEL LERNER (Editor, Tikkun): When we in the Tikkun community have gone to Washington to educate Congress about the value of a peace perspective, both for Israel and for the United States, we've faced many congresspeople who tell us, `We agree with your arguments a hundred percent, but we are scared of AIPAC."
NORTHAM: Supporters of AIPAC say the organization has helped forge strong diplomatic and strategic ties between Israel and the United States. David Segal, an Israeli Embassy spokesman in Washington, said that Israel greatly appreciates the work done by AIPAC in promoting those ties.
But since the scandal broke, one question that repeatedly comes up is whether AIPAC served as a conduit for passing highly sensitive or top-secret information it gathers to Israel. An Israeli official says that's nonsense. Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, says Israel has not engaged in espionage in the United States since Jonathan Pollard, an ex-Navy intelligence officer, was convicted of spying for the Jewish state in 1986.
Mr. MALCOLM HOENLEIN (Vice Chair, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations): Israel has been scrupulous in not allowing any espionage and has forsworn any kind of activities in this country, and has not conducted any since the regrettable Pollard affair.
NORTHAM: But the FBI, as part of the investigation, has interviewed Uzi Arad, a former Israeli intelligence officer, about his contacts with Franklin. The Jerusalem Post reports that two senior officials at AIPAC have appeared before a grand jury. At least two others have been subpoenaed. So far, Franklin is the only person to be charged and is scheduled to appear at a preliminary hearing on May 27th. His lawyer, Plato Cacheris, says Franklin will plead not guilty. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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