It was a cold, blustery day in Washington, D.C., when the spies met their mark. The place: Union Station. The mark: one Lawrence Franklin, then a 56-year-old Iran specialist who worked as a top official at the Pentagon. Franklin was convinced that Israel was being shortchanged by the United States, and that Iran posed a real threat to U.S. troops in Iraq. He had already divulged reams of classified information, including sensitive data about Al Qaeda, U.S. military operations in Iraq, and information about the 1996 Khobar Towers attack—but his handlers wanted more, and he was quite willing. Franklin, described by the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz as “an ideologue who believes wholeheartedly in the neo-conservative approach,” was later found to have secured an entire library of classified documents in his Arlington, Virginia, home, a treasure trove for his handlers. Now, on March 10, 2003, he was going to meet them—Steve Rosen, the chief lobbyist at the American Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and Keith Weissman, AIPAC’s top point man on Iran—outside Washington’s busy Union Station. Like something out of a spy novel, in the early morning hours, “the three men moved from one restaurant to another restaurant, and then finished the meeting in an empty restaurant.”
Are spies usually such picky eaters—or were they just afraid of being followed?
Judge T.S. Ellis, who has presided over cases involving the “AIPAC espionage scandal” since charges were brought in the summer of 2005, recently ruled that the government must prove that defendants Rosen and Weissman knew they were harming the United States and that their actions were illegal. If all that sneaking around Union Station doesn’t prove this, nothing will. According to their defenders, Rosen and Weissman were just ordinary “private citizens,” doing what journalists do—ferreting out information that everyone has a right to know. Yet there was nothing ordinary about their meetings with Israeli-embassy officials—possibly including former Israeli ambassador to the United States Danny Ayalon, now a member of the Knesset representing the racist, neofascist Yisrael Beiteinu party of Avigdor Lieberman—at which they handed over classified information gleaned from Franklin.
Franklin pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years and a fine, a soft punishment predicated on his willingness to testify on behalf of the prosecution. The trial of Rosen and Weissman has been delayed several times. This has been the deliberate strategy of the defense lawyers, and it has proved remarkably successful, predicated as it is on graymail—the willingness of the defense to demand the revelation of classified information in open court, on the grounds that a fair trial would otherwise be impossible. Since the government’s case is based on extensive recordings of conversations between the defendants and their contacts, the battle over what can be made public has been fought for years, with the courts generally ruling in favor of openness. Judge Ellis has even ruled in favor of subpoenaing a long list of current and former government officials, including Condoleezza Rice; former senior State Department officials Richard Armitage, Marc Grossman, Matthew Bryza, and William Burns; and former top Defense Department officials Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz. If you’re getting the distinct impression that this is one trial which will never take place, you may indeed be right.
As the years have rolled by, and the stalling tactics of the defense have been faithfully enabled by clueless judges, the rehabilitation of Rosen as a commentator and even a leader of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington has been a real sight to behold. Rosen is described by the Jewish newspaper Forward as the real “spark plug” behind AIPAC’s efforts to lobby the executive branch just as vigorously as it had managed to leash Congress. He single-handedly turned AIPAC into the legendary arbiter of U.S. policy in the Middle East, the one-stop shop for information and talking points on key policy-making questions relating to the Jewish state. Such a man is not going to remain quiet for very long, and his gradual comeback, after a remarkably short interregnum, as a key player in Obama’s Washington is a dark portent. In interviews with the media, Rosen complained that he couldn’t find a job, that he was being unfairly shunned—after all, don’t spies have feelings, and a need for income, too?—until he finally wound up at the Middle East Forum, a Washington think tank founded by pro-Israel fanatic Richard Pipes, who claims Barack Obama is a former practicing Muslim.
It was a long way down from the heights he’d reached as the key player at AIPAC, but a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. He set up shop on the Middle East Forum’s website, with a column called Obama Mideast Monitor. He filled it with news of incoming and possible appointments in the new administration, and it was he who fired the first shot at Charles “Chas” Freeman, the distinguished diplomat and intelligence specialist who famously translated for Nixon in China and even more famously is a contrarian in the city of conformists. He has served as assistant secretary of defense for international-security affairs, U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, deputy chief of mission and chargé d’affaires in Bangkok and Beijing, director of Chinese affairs at the U.S. State Department, and distinguished fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and the Institute of National Security Studies. Freeman has worked with more than 100 foreign governments in East and South Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and both Western and Eastern Europe. Called out of retirement by Adm. Dennis Blair, newly appointed chief of National Intelligence, to head up the National Intelligence Council, Freeman was characterized by the accused spy Rosen as follows:
Readers of this blog know that I have been generally quite positive about the appointments the new Adminsitration [sic] is making for Middle East policy positions. Today’s news is quite different. . . . Chas W. Freeman, Jr., the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, will become chairman of the National Intelligence Council, and may at times participate in daily intelligence briefings to President Obama. This is a profoundly disturbing appointment, if the report is correct. Freeman is a strident critic of Israel, and a textbook case of the old-line Arabism that afflicted American diplomacy at the time the state of Israel was born. His views of the region are what you would expect in the Saudi foreign ministry, with which he maintains an extremely close relationship, not the top CIA position for analytic products going to the President of the United States.
Rosen then cites various remarks regarding the state of Israel in which Freeman decries America’s “unconditional support” for the Israeli government’s every action, and denounces the Israeli occupation and settlement of Arab lands as “inherently violent.”
The next day, Rosen came up with more choice quotations of Freeman on the subject of Israel, including this excerpt:
Americans need to be clear about the consequences of continuing our current counterproductive approaches to security in the Middle East. We have paid heavily and often in treasure in the past for our unflinching support and unstinting subsidies of Israel’s approach to managing its relations with the Arabs. Five years ago we began to pay with the blood of our citizens here at home. We are now paying with the lives of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines on battlefields in several regions of the realm of Islam, with more said by our government’s neoconservative mentors to be in prospect. Our policies in Afghanistan and Iraq are adding to the threats to our security and well-being, not reducing them. They have added and are adding to our difficulties and those of allies and partners, including Israel. They are not advancing the resolution of these problems or making anyone more secure. They degrade our moral standing and diminish our value as an ally. They delight our enemies and dismay our friends.
Freeman is clearly a dangerous man—at least from an Israel First perspective.
The signal had been sent, and the war drums began beating. Politico’s Ben Smith reported the appointment as “A Test for the Israel Lobby,” and the Amen Corner took its cue from there. The cry went up from all points on the neocon compass—the “left” over at The New Republic, the right over at The Weekly Standard, and the center over at The Atlantic, where Jeffrey Goldberg railed at Freeman for daring to promote the realist tome The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, a detailed scholarly study that documents the lobby’s decisive influence on policy-making, which Goldberg equates with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The focus soon shifted away from Freeman’s views on Israel, however, as the neocons took a different tack: He’s a foreign agent. The nonprofit foundation he has headed since his retirement received Saudi money, albeit only one fortieth of its total assets, but then there’s the China connection: Freeman, you see, served as a member of the international advisory board of the Chinese government-owned international China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC), which has business dealings in Iran. The China meme was reinforced by the revelation of a private e-mail exchange list, on which the former ambassador was describing the popular feeling inside China regarding the Tiananmen Square incident:
[T]he truly unforgivable mistake of the Chinese authorities was the failure to intervene on a timely basis to nip the demonstrations in the bud, rather than—as would have been both wise and efficacious—to intervene with force when all other measures had failed to restore domestic tranquility to Beijing and other major urban centers in China. In this optic, the Politburo’s response to the mob scene at “Tian’anmen” stands as a monument to overly cautious behavior on the part of the leadership, not as an example of rash action. . . .
I do not believe it is acceptable for any country to allow the heart of its national capital to be occupied by dissidents intent on disrupting the normal functions of government, however appealing to foreigners their propaganda may be. Such folk, whether they represent a veterans’ “Bonus Army” or a “student uprising” on behalf of “the goddess of democracy” should expect to be displaced with despatch [sic] from the ground they occupy.
That Freeman was not describing his own views but relating those of the Chinese man on the street, was lost in the shouting. Immediately, he was a target of the “human rights” crowd, including the grievously misnamed Human Rights Watch, which up until recently refused to acknowledge hundreds of civilian casualties in Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia. With the Israel Firsters and the “human rights” crowd up in arms over his appointment, Freeman didn’t stand a chance. His letter explaining his withdrawal says it all:
I have concluded that the barrage of libelous distortions of my record would not cease upon my entry into office. The effort to smear me and to destroy my credibility would instead continue. I do not believe the National Intelligence Council could function effectively while its chair was under constant attack by unscrupulous people with a passionate attachment to the views of a political faction in a foreign country. . . .
The libels on me and their easily traceable email trails show conclusively that there is a powerful lobby determined to prevent any view other than its own from being aired, still less to factor in American understanding of trends and events in the Middle East. The tactics of the Israel Lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth. The aim of this Lobby is control of the policy process through the exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of its views, the substitution of political correctness for analysis, and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and our government other than those that it favors.
There is a special irony in having been accused of improper regard for the opinions of foreign governments and societies by a group so clearly intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government—in this case, the government of Israel.
The pill is all the more bitter because the inciter of this lynch mob, Steve Rosen, may have been the spider at the center of a web of espionage that reaches from Washington, D.C., to Tel Aviv. The Rosen litmus test—no criticism of Israel, however mild, shall be permitted in the upper echelons of power—has now been applied successfully to the Obama administration. We are barely past the first hundred days of the Obama administration, and already the Israel Lobby has reestablished the veto power it enjoyed during the Bush years.