The Power Player Who Faces Charges for Talking

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 21, 2006

For more than two decades, Steven J. Rosen sleuthed the tight-lipped government back channels of the United States and Israel for tidbits he could quietly pass to his powerful employer, the pro-Israel lobby called AIPAC. As a result, he would joke over restaurant tables that he was glad the United States did not have an Official Secrets Act that would render his vocation a crime.

But his quip turned out to be prescient. The FBI placed him and a junior colleague under surveillance -- listening to their phone calls and watching their meetings, including those with a Pentagon official who was cooperating with authorities. Last year, Rosen and Keith Weissman were fired by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and then indicted on charges of receiving and transmitting national defense information in violation of the Espionage Act.

The case has roiled official Washington. It has spotlighted a murky type of advocacy that Rosen helped create -- an amalgam of intelligence gathering and lobbying on behalf of a narrow interest. Lobbyists who routinely pass along sensitive information wonder how much leeway they will have to do their jobs if Rosen is convicted. The case has also angered some journalists who worry that it could further cool their already strained relationships with national security sources in the aftermath of the CIA leak probe.

"This is a very novel prosecution with many unsettling aspects," said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor. "The chilling effect could become glacial for anybody who is engaged in basic lobbying research or simply doing research or writing stories on national security issues."

Rosen, 63, is a highly intelligent, compact man with a tough-guy manner and unrivaled contacts here and in the Middle East. Associates describe him as abrasive, kinetic and mysterious -- he has been married and divorced six times -- and say he is both respected and despised in the close-knit world he dominated for years. Rosen declined to be interviewed for this article.

Rosen's case has attracted extra attention partly because of his many personal connections; he once bragged that he had 6,000 names in his Rolodex. When he worked at the Rand Corp. think tank in the early 1980s, one of the research fellows in his department was Condoleezza Rice.

His indictment has marred the reputation of AIPAC, which employed him for 23 years. The hard-charging Rosen was instrumental in building AIPAC into one of Washington's most effective pressure groups. The 100,000-member organization plays a major role in securing more than $2 billion a year in U.S. aid for Israel and in fostering other pro-Israel policies.

At AIPAC, Rosen helped pioneer executive-branch lobbying, a style of advocacy that was not widespread when he began it in the mid-1980s, but is now a routine complement to the more traditional lobbying of Congress. Before Rosen, AIPAC had believed that the way to alter American foreign policy was to get senators to sign a letter. His insight was that he could also affect the process by dealing with the staff-level bureaucrats in the executive branch who originated the policies.

A New York City-born foreign policy scholar, Rosen rose to prominence by dint of this interest in influencing government from the inside. He told friends he joined AIPAC after working as a professor and a think-tank analyst because he grew tired of studying the system and wanted to change it.

As AIPAC's director of foreign policy issues, he headed a 10-person department that provided the $47 million-a-year, 200-employee organization with analyses about the Middle East. To stay on the cutting edge, he aggressively swapped information and gossip with academics, journalists and employees of the Israeli government and of the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House.

Rosen did not lobby the governments' highest-ranking officials. He concentrated instead on the workaday policy-development aides and left to other AIPAC officials dealings with the likes of the secretary of state. "He was very good at what he did," said Dennis Ross, the Middle East point man for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. "He was a smart guy. He knew the issues extremely well. He was knowledgeable about Israel and what Israel's concerns would be."

Over the years, Rosen had a hand in writing several policies favored by Israel, including a strategic cooperation agreement between Israel and the United States and a sanctions regimen against Israel's enemy Iran.

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