WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The annual gathering of the nation's top pro-Israel lobbying group, which starts here today, will be addressed by Vice President Dick Cheney and U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton. Politicians are lined up to warn of the threat from Iran and Hamas. Workshops will offer advice on winning the legislative game on Capitol Hill.
But the official program omits a topic likely to be a major theme of corridor chatter: the explosive Justice Department prosecution of two former officials of the group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is ticking toward an April trial date.
The highly unusual indictment of the former officials, Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, accuses them of receiving classified information about terrorism and Middle East strategy from a Defense Department analyst, Lawrence A. Franklin, and passing it on to a journalist and an Israeli diplomat. Franklin pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison, though his sentence could be reduced based on his cooperation in the case.
The prosecution has roiled the powerful organization, known as AIPAC, which at first vigorously defended Rosen and Weissman and then fired them last March. And it has generated considerable anger among American Jews who question why the group's representatives were singled out in the first place.
AIPAC would appear to be an unlikely target for the Bush administration; it is a political powerhouse that generally shares the administration's hawkish views on the potential nuclear threat from Iran and the danger of Palestinian militancy. But the case does fit with the administration's determination to stop leaks of classified information.
Some legal experts say the prosecution threatens political and press freedom, making a felony of the commerce in information and ideas that is Washington's lifeblood. Federal prosecutors are using the Espionage Act for the first time against Americans who are not government officials, do not have a security clearance and, by all indications, were not a part of a foreign spy operation.
"The feeling in the Jewish community is one of indignation at AIPAC's being unfairly targeted by federal prosecutors for trying to find out what everyone in this town is trying to find out - what the government is thinking," said Douglas M. Bloomfield, a legislative director at AIPAC in the 1980s, who now writes a syndicated column on U.S. Middle Eastern policy.
As the marquee conference speakers attest, AIPAC's power has not been visibly diminished by the criminal case. Membership has increased 25 percent over the past two years to more than 100,000, and its budget has grown to $45 million, the group said. "As always, the organization is completely focused on its core mission, the strengthening of the U.S.-Israel relationship," said Patrick Dorton, an AIPAC spokesman.
Bloomfield said he has been told by insiders that the investigation of Rosen, director of foreign policy issues at AIPAC and an influential figure there for more than 20 years, and Weissman, a Middle East analyst with the group since 1993, has proved a "fundraising windfall" as donors rallied to offer their support.
But the case has set off alarms among the policy groups, lobbyists and journalists who swap information, often about national security issues, with executive branch officials and congressional staff members. They were not reassured by a remark from the federal judge hearing the case, at Franklin's sentencing in January, that the laws on classified information were not limited to government officials.
"Persons who have unauthorized possession, who come into unauthorized possession, of classified information, must abide by the law," Judge T.S. Ellis III said. "That applies to academics, lawyers, journalists, professors, whatever."