Two senior employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of Washington's most influential lobbying organizations, have left their jobs amid an FBI investigation into whether they passed classified U.S. information to the government of Israel, a source close to the organization said yesterday.
The source characterized the departures as firings.
Lawyers for the two men, policy director Steve Rosen and senior analyst Keith Weissman, released a statement strongly denying any wrongdoing.
"Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman have not violated any U.S. law or AIPAC policy," said the statement, issued by Abbe Lowell and John Nassikas. "Contrary to press accounts, they have never solicited, received, or passed on any classified documents. They carried out their job responsibilities solely to serve AIPAC's goal of strengthening the US-Israel relationship."
The attorneys declined through a spokesman to comment further. An AIPAC spokesman also declined to discuss details, but disputed portions of the statement issued by the men's attorneys.
"The statement made by Rosen and Weissman represents solely their view of the facts," said AIPAC spokesman Patrick Dorton. "The action that AIPAC has taken was done in consultation with counsel after careful consideration of recently learned information and the conduct AIPAC expects of its employees."
The exit of Rosen and Weissman marks a dramatic about-face for AIPAC, which in previous public statements has strongly defended the actions of all its employees as the FBI conducted its probe.
The developments also come as federal prosecutors in Alexandria are considering filing criminal charges in the case, according to two law enforcement officials. The probe centers on whether a Defense Department policy analyst, Lawrence A. Franklin, provided a draft presidential directive on Iran and other information to AIPAC, and whether AIPAC then passed the material on to Israel, officials have said.
"Things are moving quickly," one of the officials said in a recent interview. "It is definitely moving closer to some conclusions."
Franklin has been cooperating with authorities at times but so far has not reached any agreement with prosecutors, officials said. Franklin is now back working at the Defense Department, but not in the Pentagon and without his previous security privileges, officials said.
Franklin's attorney, Plato Cacheris, did not return a telephone message left at his office late yesterday.
The FBI raided AIPAC's offices in Washington twice last year, obtaining computer files and serving grand jury subpoenas on four senior executives. The grand jury handling the case sits in Alexandria.
AIPAC has demonstrated an ability to provide large amounts of campaign contributions to congressional friends of Israel. In Fortune magazine's now-discontinued survey of groups with clout in the capital, AIPAC regularly was ranked in the top five, along with AARP and the National Rifle Association.
AIPAC and its affiliates also annually take members of Congress and their staffers on tours of Israel, cementing relations between the leaders of both countries and ensuring continued high levels of foreign assistance from the United States to Israel.
The brewing scandal at AIPAC has caused an uproar in the Jewish community, especially among wealthy political donors. Many of the group's supporters fear that the turmoil could undercut U.S. backing of Israel at a critical time for that nation.
Staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum contributed to this report.