Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

AIPAC Triumphs over Former Director's Defamation Lawsuit.Or Does It?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

AIPAC Triumphs over Former Director's Defamation Lawsuit.Or Does It?

Article excerpt

On Feb. 22, 2011 District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Erik P. Christian dismissed a $20 million defamation lawsuit against the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The civil suit, filed on March 3, 2009 by Steven J. Rosen, AIPAC's former long-time director of foreign policy issues, was a direct result of AIPAC's treatment of Rosen during a 2005-2009 criminal Espionage Act prosecution. Rosen's failed lawsuit opened the Israel lobby's practices to unprecedented public scrutiny.

Rosen and fellow employee Keith Weissman were still under criminal indictments in early 2009 when Rosen sued AIPAC. Pentagon official Lawrence Franklin, Rosen and Weissman's source, had pleaded guilty in 2005. During 2005-2009 pretrial maneuvers, it was never in question that Rosen and Weissman obtained classified national defense information from Franklin in order to press AIPAC's case for a U.S. attack on Iran. The pair funneled selections to Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler as well as to Israeli Embassy officials. Rosen falsely claimed a major Iranian push-"total war" as he characterized it to Kessler in 2004-against petroleum infrastructure and U.S. troops in southern Iraq.

After they were wiretapped and caught passing classified information, AIPAC, Rosen and Weissman mounted a skilled defense-inside the courtroom and across the news media. Thanks to a series of favorable pre-trial rulings by presiding Judge T.S. Ellis of the Eastern District of Virginia and an extensive media campaign, they managed to turn public attention away from the violations listed in the indictment. A consortium of top establishment media companies intervened in court, portraying Rosen and Weissman as quasi members of the press "doing what reporters do every day." Ellis ruled in their favor in 2007, prohibiting closed court sessions designed to protect classified information. Government prosecutors were effectively "gray-mailed": If they wanted to present the stolen and circulated classified information as evidence, it would all have to be publicly revealed in open court.

In 2008 Judge Ellis allowed former government classification arbiter J. William Leonard-earlier barred for his role assisting the prosecution-to testify that while technically classified, the information purloined by the AIPAC operatives should not have been. In his most bizarre ruling of all, in February of 2009 Ellis ordered U.S. prosecutors to prove that Rosen and Weissman were in a "state of mind" in which they believed they were actually committing a crime. Under the close scrutiny of Obama political appointees, U.S. prosecutors dropped their case in May of 2009, citing Ellis' "unexpectedly higher evidentiary threshold." The FBI Washington Field Office was furious. Ellis went into semi-retirement-but the precedents set by his judicial rulings may have gutted the possibility of any successful future Espionage Act prosecutions.

Rosen's angry May 2009 civil suit applied a rack-and-pinion rib-spreader to AIPAC's chest of secrets. As a jilted high-level insider, Rosen guided civil court observers into AIPAC practices never uncovered by criminal prosecutors.

Rosen's core claim was that AIPAC repeatedly defamed him in the press by stating his behavior "did not comport with the standards that AIPAC expects of its employees." Initially, Rosen, AIPAC and Judge Christian all worked in tandem to ignore the elephant astride the courtroom: AIPAC's long history of collecting, circulating and leveraging U.S. government classified information in order to win benefits for Israel. In his 2009 filings (while still apparently hoping for a hefty out-of-court settlement), Rosen referred euphemistically to "inside" government information "not normally available to or needed by the wider public," while insisting that gathering such information was not really unlawful. This stance was to be only temporary, however. During a June 5, 2009 court appearance, Rosen's lawyer promised he would be seeking "serious discovery" against AIPAC. …

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