Dual Loyalties

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Thursday, December 09, 2004

Conyers: AIPAC Scandal only "Tip of the Iceberg"

Spy-scandal lobby blitz=The Hill.com=: "Spy-scandal lobby blitz
AIPAC secures wide backing after secrets charges
By Hans Nichols

Lobbyists for an influential pro-Israel group launched into congressional overdrive when trails of a Pentagon spy scandal led to their Washington office.

Soon after media outlets reported on the scandal late last month, American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobbyists and their political liaisons across the country asked Democratic and Republican lawmakers to issue public statements in support of America’s premier pro-Israel group.

That intense and frantic lobbying effort, which began on the eve of the GOP convention and continued unabated in New York, led dozens of lawmakers of both parties to testify to AIPAC’s integrity before they had been briefed by the FBI investigators on the details of the case. Some lawmakers, however, stressed that they rose to AIPAC’s defense without any prompting from the group.

The FBI is reportedly investigating whether Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin passed sensitive intelligence to Israel and the role of two AIPAC employees in the matter.

AIPAC had deployed bipartisan statements in a successful campaign to quell the potentially disastrous flow of negative articles in the first cycle of an espionage scandal that FBI investigators say is expanding.

That bipartisan support has also immunized AIPAC from political attacks that question the pro-Israel group’s patriotism and has shielded it from the crossfire of a
presidential campaign.

“As much as we’ve reached out to members of Congress, they are reaching out to us,” said Josh Block, a spokesman for AIPAC.

“Clearly, expressions of support from leaders of both parties in both chambers are extremely important and reflect the deep and abiding relationship between the U.S. and Israel, and the strong relationship between AIPAC and members of Congress,” Block said.

Dozens of key lawmakers from both parties have been briefed by AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr, say numerous congressional aides. In addition, prominent Jewish community leaders across the country — many of whom are serious donors — have been phoning their friends on Capitol Hill, denouncing the allegation that a Pentagon mole slipped classified documents to AIPAC as the scurrilous work of an FBI zealot.

The briefings from the Washington office have been limited to a detailed rebuttal of AIPAC’s alleged role in receiving classified material from Franklin, followed by a pitch for statements of support, say aides.

AIPAC’s Washington briefers have shied away from addressing the broader charges against Franklin, or any other possible allegation about the Pentagon leaking drafts of its Iran policy.

But Kohr has made himself very clear that a public statement about AIPAC’s integrity would be appreciated, while a more forceful, if less tactful, play for congressional support has come in phone calls from Jewish political leaders across the country, say congressional aides for members contacted by AIPAC.

In many cases, AIPAC lobbyists have been very specific about how they wanted the lawmakers’ statements to be phrased. But in other instances, requests have been made in general terms, asking only for a public expression of support.

AIPAC, which does not give political donations but spends roughly $1 million a year on lobbying, has received supportive statements from nearly every key congressional leader.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said, “I know AIPAC. I know the AIPAC leadership. It is an outstanding organization.”

Those comments were similar to Sen. Arlen Specter’s (R-Pa.) words: “I know AIPAC. I know its integrity. It’s a smear.”

Democrats were no less effusive in their backing of the embattled group. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said, “For more than five decades, America as a country and Americans as individuals have stood by Israel. AIPAC and its members have tirelessly led that effort, and America is better and stronger for it. It is vital work — work I know AIPAC will continue to lead effectively.”

Over on the House side, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) offered a general statement of support. “AIPAC has played a pivotal role in ensuring the strength of the special relationship between the United States and Israel,” she said. “AIPAC is a dedicated advocate for Israel, educating our nation’s leaders about opportunities to assist our democratic ally in the Middle East. I am proud to have worked closely with AIPAC and its leaders to support Israel as it works to defeat terrorism and strives toward a just and lasting peace.”

Most of lawmakers’ statements avoided the specific charges. Rather, they framed their support for AIPAC in general terms.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) was one of the few Republican lawmakers to mention the charges. “While the House will want to look carefully at any allegations that might endanger our national security, it will begin that look with a record of great confidence in our relationship with AIPAC and our strongest ally and the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel,” Blunt said.

But Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, gave an indication of how the FBI probe might be politicized on Capitol Hill. In a letter to Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), chairman of the committee, Conyers asked for a formal congressional investigation.

“It now appears that these allegations may be only the tip of the iceberg of a broader effort of the Pentagon employees working in the office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas Feith, to conduct unauthorized covert activities, without the knowledge of the Central Intelligence Agency,” Conyers wrote.

Republicans, however, cautioned that Democrats would suffer political consequences if they sought to demonize or slur AIPAC, especially in conjunction with the Iraq war."

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