Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Spy That Wasn't

After reading not a single coherent article in the Times or elsewhere about the Lawrence Franklin/AIPAC affair, I have concluded that the incoherence arises not so much from journalistic defects as from the equally familiar circumstance that those who are doing the leaking are spewing out tons of misinformation. First we were breathlessly told that Franklin, a mid-level Pentagon analyst, had spied for Israel. That quickly changed to the tale that he had just passed classified information. Before long, the news was that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is the FBI's real target and Franklin is cooperating with the investigation.

We are not likely to get the full story. What we already know is unsettling and not because Israel or its advocates on these shores may have done anything wrong. What is unsettling is the prospect that our government has been spying on some of its citizens whose alleged crime is their association with Israel.

Ever since Jonathan Pollard was caught red-handed, American Jews have been uptight about the kind of charges initially leveled against Franklin. After all, what shocked us once could happen again and this possibility purchased the silence of most of us, though not of the ADL's Abe Foxman or several others who quickly smelled a rat and aggressively challenged what soon was revealed to be bogus.

We now know that for at least two years the FBI - an overstaffed and underperforming bureaucracy whose record against terrorism is dreadful - has had AIPAC high on its most wanted list, tailing several of its officials and tapping their phones. Apparently, in certain quarters Israel advocacy is regarded as anti-American, maybe also illegal.

There are suggestions that the anti-AIPAC crusade is a rogue operation organized by officials who do not like the neo-cons and others who are well-connected with both Israel and high echelons in the Pentagon. It's more likely that the White House and Justice Department have been in on the act, authorizing the wiretaps and investigatory tactics that we may have thought were reserved for Al Quaeda.

It is also unlikely that the FBI's targeting of AIPAC has been limited to the two staffers who have been named. There is evidence that routine contacts between pro-Israel Americans and Israeli officials are grounds for suspicion, that when someone from the Israel Embassy meets a Pentagon analyst in a Washington restaurant, it's not only the food that isn't kosher.

I fret whether Malcolm Hoenlein's phone calls are being intercepted. If they are, those who do this dirty work have been privy to conversations between the Presidents Conference leader and me that invariably begin with Malcolm asking, "How are you?" followed by my response, "Lousy." Is it a crime to be a kvetch?

Before we yield to paranoiac musings and start thinking that Jews have been singled out for mistreatment, let us acknowledge that John Ashcroft's Justice Department is an equal opportunity violator of constitutional rights. This is not a boon period for those who continue to believe that accused persons have the right to counsel and other protections and that the Bill of Rights guaranty of the right to assemble is on its face a prohibition against preventive detention of the kind practiced recently in New York. Irrespective of how we feel about Bush v Kerry, what took place during the Republican Convention is a stain on New York, a stain that is made more reprehensible by Mayor Bloomberg's arrogance. It is no comfort that the old Guinness Book record of arrested bicycles was smashed by New York's finest.

Back to the sins being conducted against AIPAC: This is a story that deserves our continued attention and also a communal response because what our government has done is wrong and not because AIPAC is vital to either Israel's security or the interests of American Jewry. For all of the organization's posturing and self-importance, its impact on U.S. policy in the Middle East is, at most, negligible. AIPAC exists and thrives because checkbook Zionism provides some succor to some American Jews who feel ardently about Israel and who need to find outlets for this faith. It is comforting for them to go to big bang and big buck conferences and to listen to politicians and officials tell them how important they are.

From Camp David onward - and certainly previously - there has not been a single critical development relating to Israel's security that has been significantly affected by AIPAC. If the organization had not existed, there still would have been a Camp David, the nastiness toward Israel of the first President Bush, President Clinton's peace proposals and the favorable policies toward Israel of the second President Bush.

AIPAC has done a good job convincing itself, its coterie of supporters and some who hate Israel that it wields influence in the making of U.S. Mid East policy. Among those who have been convinced is Pat Buchanan whose soft-core anti-Semitism is routinely featured by the media.

In short, AIPAC's success as an organization but not in policy matters arises from American Jewish anxiety over Israel. It also benefits from our people's obsession with the notion that the more organizations we have, the stronger we are. I do not begrudge those who indulge this fantasy. In a sense, it is pretty benign, although we ought to wonder what would happen if we got rid of nearly all of our expensive organizations and somehow - admittedly this is a pipe dream - the funds that were saved through the cessation of so much sterile activity would go to good Jewish causes, including education and direct support for Israel.

I know that few will agree with my assessment of AIPAC. Just the same, I hope that there will be concern about what our government has done through its surveillance of this organization. The fact that the Bush Administration has been good to Israel is no justification for its being bad to AIPAC.