By Ron Kampeas · March 11, 2009
WASHINGTON (JTA) -- Steve Rosen, the former AIPAC foreign policy chief charged with receiving classified information, is suing his former employer for defamation, JTA has learned.
Rosen filed a civil action March 2 in the District of Columbia Superior Court seeking $21 million from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, its officers at the time of his dismissal in 2005 and an outside spokesman hired to deal specifically with the case.
Should it come to trial, the civil case promises revelations of how AIPAC works its sensitive relations with the executive branch and allegedly capitulated to government pressure to fire Rosen and Keith Weissman, its then-Iran analyst.
Weissman, Rosen's co-defendant in the criminal case under way in a federal court in Alexandria, Va., is not a plaintiff in the civil suit. He and his lawyers declined comment, as did Rosen.
Both of Rosen's lawyers -- in the criminal case and in his suit against AIPAC -- did not return calls requesting comment.
The core of the case is the repeated claims by Patrick Dorton, the outside spokesman for AIPAC named in the suit, that Rosen and Weissman were fired because they "did not comport with standards that AIPAC expects of all its employees."
AIPAC's regular spokesman, Joshua Block, referred questions to Dorton. In turn, Dorton issued a statement saying that AIPAC and the others named in Rosen's suit would defend themselves vigorously.
"The complaint paints a false picture of what happened," he told JTA, adding later that "AIPAC made all decisions in this situation with a determination to do the right thing."
Rosen is not publicity-shy; he helped launch the recent successful effort to remove Charles Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, from the chairmanship of the National Intelligence Council. In his blog monitoring Obama administration Middle East policy, Rosen uncovered and highlighted a number of past controversial statements by Freeman praising Saudi Arabia and blaming Israel for the collapse of the Middle East peace process.
In seeking to prove that he was the victim of "false and defamatory statements" made on AIPAC's behalf, the complaint describes Rosen as tumbling from the heights of a cozy relationship with the highest echelons of government to being shown the door at AIPAC.
Rosen describes his own status as a high-flying conduit between foreign policy mandarins and the policy community, journalists and foreign diplomats.
In the complaint, a copy of which was obtained by JTA, Rosen says he had the "requisite experience and expertise" to deal with those "with the authority to determine and differentiate which information disclosures would be harmful to the United States and which disclosures would benefit the United States."
Rosen and Weissman allegedly received classified information having to do with Iran and its backing for terrorism. The case came to light following an FBI raid on AIPAC's offices in August 2004.
After the FBI raid, AIPAC stood by the two employees, insisting they had done nothing wrong. Rosen says he even received a performance bonus. Seven months after the raid - and just a month or so after Rosen got his bonus - in March 2005, Rosen and Weissman were fired; they were indicted in August of that year.
Rosen's suit alleges that AIPAC gave in to government pressure to fire the two staffers, casting prosecutors in the case as making threats that would not be out of place in a legal drama.
"We could make real progress and get AIPAC out from under all of us," the filing quotes a prosecutor as saying.
The filing draws its information from a motion by Rosen and Weissman to have the criminal case dismissed in 2007. The motion said the government violated the defendants' right to a defense by threatening to charge AIPAC as well unless it fired Rosen and Weissman and stopped paying their legal fees.
In sworn affidavits filed with the motion, lawyers for Rosen and Weissman quoted lawyers for AIPAC as saying that the decision to fire the two came under government pressure.
T.S. Ellis III, the federal judge trying the case, ultimately rejected the motion to dismiss but said its claims were credible. At the time of the May 2007 ruling, Dorton brushed aside the motion's claims.
"AIPAC made all of its decisions in this case alone based on the facts of the situation and the organization's intention to do the right thing," he told JTA.
Within months, however, AIPAC agreed to pay a portion of Weissman's legal fees and later came to a similar agreement for Rosen. Weissman's legal team is still fund-raising for the defense.
Rosen's central contention is that his actions comported with AIPAC practices, and that he provided his superiors with regular briefings about his efforts to gather information from government officials. The paragraph in the complaint outlining how AIPAC works suggests that the trial would lift the veil over exchanges with the government that AIPAC has long tried to keep under wraps.
"To be effective, organizations engaged in advocacy in the field of foreign policy need to have earlier and more detailed information about policy developments inside the government and diplomatic issues with other countries than is normally available to or needed by the wider public," the complaint says. "Agencies of the government sometimes choose to provide such additional information about policy and diplomatic issues to these outside interest groups in order to win support for what they are doing among important domestic constituencies and to send messages to select target audiences."
The complaint also asserts that the statements made by AIPAC's outside spokesman "might influence a jury that will hear the misdirected case brought against him by the government." The criminal trial, which has been delayed multiple times, is now set for June 2.
The filing also alleges that "through their publication of the falsehoods about Mr. Rosen, defendant achieved an increase of millions of dollars in revenue for AIPAC, whereas had they told the truth, AIPAC might well have suffered a significant decrease in fund-raising, as well as an increase in legal costs."
Sources close to the criminal case say that Weissman and the criminal defense team are not troubled by the lawsuit, but think that making the case that Rosen had been defamed would be much easier after an acquittal or after the case had been dropped by the government.
Increasing calls on the Obama administration to drop the case include most recently an editorial Wednesday in the Washington Post.
The case is now being seen to have been an instrument of Bush administration efforts to expand secrecy laws. Prosecutors charged Rosen and Weissman under a rarely cited section of the 1917 Espionage Act that criminalizes the receipt of classified information by civilians; the section has never led to a successful prosecution.
Rosen in filing his lawsuit may have felt pressed for time, as defamation suits must be filed within a year of the offending statement.
The most recent instance of Dorton, the spokesman, claiming publicly that Rosen and Weissman did not comport with AIPAC rules came in a story by The New York Times on March 3, 2008 -- a year less a day before Rosen filed his suit. The suit contends that Dorton repeated the claim to a reporter for the Forward in October; that instance apparently was not published.
A Superior Court judge set June 5 for a hearing to set a trial date regarding Rosen's claims. By the time Rosen's civil lawsuit comes to trial, he might have a dismissal or acquittal under his belt, increasing his chances for victory.
Rosen's filing asserts that at AIPAC he "was one of the principal officials who, along with Executive Director Howard Kohr and a few other individuals, were expected to maintain relationships with [government] agencies, receive such information and share it with AIPAC Board of Directors and to Senior Staff for possible further distribution."
Kohr is named as a defendant, as are AIPAC's lay leadership at the time: Bernice Manocherian, then president; Howard Friedman, then president-elect (and a former president of JTA's board of directors); and Amy Friedkin, then the immediate past president.
Also named are alleged members of an "advisory group" set up to deal directly with the case. These names reinforce the impression that a small core of members of AIPAC's board continues to take the lead in determining AIPAC's direction. They include past presidents Lonnie Kaplan, Larry Weinberg, Bob Asher and Ed Levy.
The complaint asks for $10 million from AIPAC, $500,000 each from all 12 other defendants and $5 million collectively from all the defendants.