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.
As a result of such successes, Rosen became synonymous with AIPAC; his energetic promotion of American-Israeli relations contributed to the group's rapid growth. "He was very important" to AIPAC, said Malcolm Hoenlein, chief executive of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "He was a respected voice."
Gerald Charnoff, a member of AIPAC's executive committee, added: "I thought he was one of the brightest guys in a staff position in any organization I've been involved in. I do think his loss was a blow."
At the same time, Rosen could be ornery, hard to work with and secretive, almost spy-like. "He's a mercurial character, very intense, very smart, in many ways brilliant, but somewhat misanthropic," said Martin S. Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel. "His personality is so intense that he can be off-putting to people, especially among the gray suits of a bureaucracy."
Rosen could also be ruthless with his colleagues. He was among those behind the ouster of Douglas M. Bloomfield as AIPAC's chief congressional lobbyist in 1988 and helped remove other employees. "He was spooky, strange and not driven by love for Israel," said M.J. Rosenberg, a former AIPAC employee who tangled with Rosen. "I saw him as a power player, interested solely in power."
Rosen has also been "a little roguish," said Abbe D. Lowell, Rosen's attorney. An expansive and sometimes bawdy raconteur, Rosen's frequent marriages were a source of wonderment among people who knew him. He is currently living with his first wife in the Silver Spring house he extensively renovated with his own hands. He has three children, ages 23, 20 and 7.
His personal quirks aside, former associates remain perplexed and concerned about why Rosen is being prosecuted. "He and other members of AIPAC dealt with the administration just the way other lobbyists do. He was doing what he's always done," Ross said. Indyk agreed: "His job was to trade in information. That was his great skill. He's essentially on trial for doing his job well."
Defense lawyers make similar points and have enlisted a surprising ally: Viet D. Dinh, former head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy and an author of the Bush administration's USA Patriot Act. Dinh helped write a memorandum that called for the dismissal of the Espionage Act charges against the lobbyists. The memo said that in the 90 years since the act was drafted, "there have been no reported prosecutions of persons outside government for repeating information that they obtained verbally."
The memo also said that in receiving leaked classified information and relaying it to others, the lobbyists were doing what journalists, think-tank scholars and congressional staff members "do perhaps hundreds of times every day."
AIPAC and prosecutors dispute those assertions. "Rosen and Weissman were dismissed because they engaged in conduct that was not part of their jobs, and because this conduct did not comport with the standards that AIPAC expects and requires of its employees," AIPAC spokesman Patrick Dorton said.
U.S. Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty said last year when he announced the charges against them that the lobbyists had simply gone too far. "Washington is a town in which the flow of information is virtually nonstop," but the law "separates classified information from everything else." The charges, he added, "are about crossing that line."
Rosen's case is undergoing preliminary motions and could go to trial as early as next month.
The FBI monitored Rosen and Weissman during a series of meetings between them and Lawrence A. Franklin, an Iran specialist at the Pentagon who in January was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison for passing government secrets. Both lobbyists deny they did anything wrong.
The FBI raided AIPAC's Washington offices twice in 2004, obtaining computer files and serving grand jury subpoenas on four senior executives. It also listened in on several encounters between Franklin and the lobbyists -- at restaurants and a Pentagon City shopping mall -- dating to 2003, as well as on a phone call from Rosen to Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler.
For at least a short while, the Rosen controversy boosted AIPAC's coffers as donors rallied to its side. But in an open letter to AIPAC directors, former executive director Neal M. Sher added, "a very serious toll already has been taken on AIPAC's ability . . . to be the aggressive advocate we have a right to expect it to be."
As Rosen liked to say, "A lobby is like a night flower: It thrives in the dark and dies in the sun."