Amid AIPAC's Big Show, Straight Talk With a Noticeable Silence

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Words are seldom minced at the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

During a luncheon speech yesterday at the convention center, Daniel Gillerman, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, shouted a barnyard obscenity involving a bull when he dismissed the theory that Iran and Hamas might soften their anti-Israel views. The audience gave Gillerman a standing ovation.

The undiplomatic diplomat went on to describe a war on radical Islam: "While it may be true -- and probably is -- that not all Muslims are terrorists, it also happens to be true that nearly all terrorists are Muslim."

But ask people at this week's gathering about Steve Rosen, the father of modern AIPAC, who goes on trial next month for disseminating classified information, and you get the sort of look you'd expect if you inquired about an embarrassing medical condition.

"I'm not the person to ask about that," says Nathan Diament, a Washington representative for Orthodox Jews.

"Who?" responds Neil Cooper, a delegate from the Philadelphia area.

"Rosen? Which one is he?" answers a charity executive, with a smile.

"I need to read more about it," demurs Etan Cohen, a college student.

AIPAC staff members note that, with Iran and the Palestinians to worry about, the indictments of Rosen and former deputy Keith Weissman have not been mentioned in any of the group's public meetings so far. And they say the pro-Israel lobby, unharmed by the Rosen flap, is putting on its biggest and best show ever this week: 4,500 participants, including more than 1,000 students, paying visits to at least 450 House and Senate offices.

Indeed, the scandal doesn't seem to have slowed down the group. At last night's dinner, AIPAC set aside 27 minutes for the reading of its annual "Roll Call" of lawmakers, diplomats and administration officials attending the gathering. As of midday yesterday, RSVPs had come in from 57 embassies, from Burundi to Turkey; a score of Bush administration officials; a majority of the Senate; and a quarter of the House. Even the ambassadors of Pakistan and Oman supped at AIPAC's table.

Any talk of Rosen is confined to private donor meetings and hallway conversations -- where opinions are split on AIPAC's decision to turn its back on Rosen and Weissman.

"I don't like the way AIPAC handled it, hanging them out to dry," said one West Coast delegate, after delivering an on-the-record no comment. "They didn't do anything different from what everybody else does in this town every day."

Rosen and Weissman are the first nongovernment officials to be prosecuted under the all-but-forgotten Espionage Act of 1917. The law, amended in 1950, makes it a crime for an unauthorized person even to have classified information knowingly; if Rosen broke that law, so do hundreds of other lobbyists and journalists as part of their normal course of business.

The New Yorker magazine reported last year that AIPAC's lawyer, Nathan Lewin, recommended that the two officials be fired after he heard from prosecutors about an FBI-recorded telephone call between Rosen, Weissman and The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler, in which Rosen observed that "at least we have no Official Secrets Act." Lewin and the prosecutors may not have realized that the line -- referring to a British law about publishing classified information -- was a stock joke Rosen used in conversations with Kessler and other reporters.

AIPAC at first defended Rosen vigorously, then dismissed him in April over unspecified conduct "beneath the standards AIPAC sets for its employees." The group has advised members that it has not taken a position on whether Rosen acted legally.

That nuance was understandably lost on most of the attendees asked about the matter at yesterday's session. "AIPAC doesn't support passing of state secrets to Israel, and that's my view, too," said Daniel Rathauser, a high school senior from New Jersey.

Max Newman, from Michigan, had no complaints, either. "I respect the way the organization handled it," he said. "What they did was against the policy of AIPAC."

Exactly what they did should come out in next month's trial. In the meantime, AIPAC is clamping down on what information it lets out.

Luncheon speeches by former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and former Virginia governor Mark Warner (D) were declared off the record. At another speech yesterday by Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, reporters were turned away at the door; an AIPAC spokeswoman went through the room making sure no journalists had infiltrated.

At the public sessions, the message was uniform: AIPAC is strong, and getting stronger. "Thank God for AIPAC," Gillerman told the participants. "This is for us the greatest guarantee and insurance policy for the survival of Israel," he added. "Please don't ever change."

As Rosen and Weissman have learned, it already has.

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