On May 18, President George W. Bush stood before the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington and spoke effusively to its members.
"AIPAC is doing important work," Bush said. "In Washington and beyond, AIPAC is calling attention to the great security challenges of our time.
"You've always understood and warned against the evil ambition of terrorism and their networks," the president continued. "In a dangerous new century, your work is more vital than ever."
Just over three months later, the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization in the United States is embroiled in an FBI probe into whether Pentagon officials gave AIPAC representatives classified material -- which sources said may have included information about Iran -- and whether they in turn passed it to the Israeli government.
For AIPAC, the allegations are potentially devastating to its credibility and large influence in Washington, and its officials have vigorously denied any wrongdoing.
"What really is troubling is the issue of dual loyalties," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.), one of many senior members of the House who have defended AIPAC. The leaked allegations "raise a troubling specter" with the questioning of AIPAC's loyalty that Matsui said he is acutely sensitive to as a Japanese American who was interned in 1940 at age six months with his U.S.-born parents.
AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr said, "The feelings for Israel [in America] are quite deep. It is a country that shares our interests, our values and has been a valuable democratic ally. . . . since the founding of Israel. This is not something that is going to change. . . . I think AIPAC is going to be stronger at the end of this."
When the existence of the investigation of AIPAC became public more than a week ago, Pentagon officials said the inquiry was focused on one mid-level Pentagon analyst -- Lawrence A. Franklin -- and whether he gave a draft presidential directive on Iran to AIPAC.
Last week, however, The Washington Post reported that the two-year-old probe was broader and that sources said investigators were probing whether other defense officials had given sensitive materials to AIPAC and Ahmed Chalabi, the former Iraqi dissident who was a favorite at the Pentagon before the war. The material in question, sources said, included information not just on Iran but also on the Middle East peace process and on U.S. intentions in Iraq.
If reports of a probe involving AIPAC are true, the group said in a statement, "then surely the confidence demonstrated by the President of the United States, the highest officials in the executive branch [and] key members of the intelligence committees in continuing to regularly meet and address AIPAC during this period of time is substantial vindication of AIPAC's loyalty and trustworthiness."
The allegations have, nonetheless, profoundly shaken members of AIPAC, known as one of the capital's toughest and most effective behind-the-scenes lobbies.
Much of AIPAC's influence lies in the extensive civic participation of its supporters, the high-profile role of board members in making and raising campaign contributions, the strong ties of AIPAC to the government of Israel, and the strategic importance of Israel to U.S. interests. Every two years, AIPAC offers each new member of Congress a trip to Israel for a week to 10 days.
Israel was established in 1948, and AIPAC was set up six years later. It now has 85,000 members, an annual budget of $33.4 million and a staff of 165, with offices in Washington, 10 states and Israel.
In 2003, the organization reported spending $1.28 million on lobbying. Though not insubstantial by Washington standards, it is a fraction of the amounts spent by one of the largest lobbying groups, the AARP, which dedicated $20.9 million to lobbying last year.