No way out
Indicted for conspiring to reveal classified information, former AIPAC analyst Keith Weissman spent five years fighting to clear his name.
By Jason Kelly
Photography by Dan Dry
Keith Weissman, AB’76, AM’78, PhD’90, was on vacation in July 2004, shopping at the New Balance outlet in Boston, when the FBI called. Weissman didn’t answer. He had left his phone outside with his wife, Deborah Heilizer, AB’80, while she walked the family’s golden-retriever puppy, Meg.
The agent would not say what he wanted to discuss, so Heilizer, a securities lawyer, told Weissman to contact an attorney before calling back. “Now, she’s a very suspicious person,” Weissman says. He didn’t think anything of it; he certainly never imagined that the call heralded the end of his career and the beginning of a five-year legal ordeal.
Weissman had followed an unusual route to his position as deputy director of foreign-policy issues for the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). A medievalist at Chicago, he wrote his dissertation on 13th-century Iraq and spent time in Iran and Egypt, becoming fluent in Arabic and Persian. During and after his doctoral studies, he spent seven years teaching history at several Chicago universities and expected to pursue an academic career.
When Heilizer took a job at the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1991, they moved to Washington, “the only place a person with a Middle East PhD could work without being in academia.” For about 18 months Weissman edited a newsletter and then a magazine about the region—one funded by AIPAC supporters who wanted an alternative to the American press, the other run by a Lebanese Christian. The newsletter folded after about six months when Weissman’s boss, Jack Lew, went to work for the Clinton administration; the magazine job ended after a falling out; and Weissman wasn’t sure what to do next.
Steven J. Rosen, AIPAC’s director of foreign-policy issues, had pioneered executive-branch lobbying in the mid-1980s. Now he wanted to hire PhDs and others with extensive knowledge to better engage Pentagon and State Department specialists. Weissman fit that profile, and connections from his editing positions put him on Rosen’s radar.
When Weissman joined AIPAC in 1993, “all my friends went nuts.” They were surprised that someone with expressed Palestinian sympathies—in college he affixed a “Free Palestine” flag decal to his car—would work for a powerful organization whose official positions were often at odds with his personal opinions.
In fact, however, it was a comfortable fit, if a departure from the complexity and nuance he knew as a student. During Weissman’s first week at AIPAC, the Oslo Peace Accords were signed. Assigned to write talking points summarizing how the agreement would benefit Israel, he felt inspired to “sell peace.” But first he had to ask, “What are talking points?”
Over the next couple years Weissman grew frustrated with what he considered pockets of resistance to peace within the American Jewish community. After Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s 1995 assassination—at the hands of an Israeli radical who opposed the agreement—and Benjamin Netanyahu’s subsequent election, Weissman asked to be reassigned.
Iran became his official assignment, but his portfolio included Turkey, Iraq, and Afghanistan, with a focus on energy issues that affected the United States and Israel. One of his strategic initiatives was to push for a U.S. policy requiring energy companies to import Caspian Sea oil and gas through allies such as Turkey as opposed to Iran.
As long as he did not have to “defend Israeli actions in occupied territory against innocent civilians,” Weissman says, he remained happy at AIPAC. He examined the modern Middle East in depth with high-level meetings and regular trips overseas. Diplomats, politicians, foreign officials, and journalists filled his Rolodex—and they all would take his calls, eager to tap into the organization’s information and influence. Plus there were perks. “I had a company card; I could take anyone to any restaurant I wanted to and all that,” Weissman says. “I have to admit, it was fun, and it was interesting.”
He also met with FBI agents from time to time. Usually the conversations were part of vetting government appointees, a routine order of business in Washington’s foreign-policy community. Still, that July 2004 call made Heilizer anxious, so they compromised.
Weissman contacted Rosen, who said he had received a similar call: “I think they’re checking somebody out.” It was true, though neither man realized they both were among the FBI’s targets.
Rosen’s response made the situation seem relatively benign, so Heilizer relented, and Weissman called back. He joked with the agent about his wife’s concern, adding sarcastically, “Am I in trouble?”
“You’re probably in more trouble with her than with me,” he remembers the agent saying.
“Which, as you can guess,” Weissman says now with both wry resignation and simmering resentment, “was not exactly the truth.”
Weissman was, in fact, in serious trouble. Still unaware of the investigation closing in on him, he put off the agent’s request to meet right away in Boston and made an appointment for about a week-and-a-half later, after he returned to Washington. Over coffee—Weissman’s treat, as he recalls—he and two agents made small talk about baseball and discussed Defense Department Iran expert Lawrence A. Franklin. Twice in the previous month, Weissman and Franklin had met to discuss U.S. policy toward Iran, a shared area of expertise.
The agents sought what Weissman recalls as standard background information. They asked if he knew of any foreign connections, financial problems, or sexual proclivities that might compromise Franklin’s job performance.
He also remembers a general question about how Franklin might handle government secrets. In the 2005 indictment that accused Franklin, Weissman, and Rosen with conspiracy, the government alleged that the agents specifically asked if Franklin had ever given him classified information, and that Weissman—“falsely,” the federal prosecutors argued—said no.
Weissman and Franklin had six meetings between February 12, 2003, and July 21, 2004, according to the indictment, including a June 30, 2003, Baltimore Orioles–New York Yankees game. To Weissman, establishing such connections was a typical part of his job. To federal prosecutors it was the basis of a conspiracy.
Rosen and Weissman did consider Franklin a useful source to cultivate. After a meeting among the three men in June 2003—when the government said Franklin divulged “highly classified” information—Rosen told Weissman, “This channel is one to keep wide open insofar as possible.”
Toward that end, Weissman mentioned the baseball game he had planned to attend with Franklin. “Smart guy,” Rosen said. Attending that game is one of 57 “overt acts” the government considered part of the conspiracy:
37. On or about June 30, 2003, WEISSMAN and FRANKLIN, together, attended a major league baseball game in Baltimore, Maryland.
Weissman laughs about the citation. “That’s all it says. It doesn’t say I did anything there. And we went with our kids. They’re trying to create this template, the government, that we’re wining and dining the guy and taking him to restaurants and pumping him for information.”
A native New Yorker and a lifelong Yankees fan, Weissman remembers the game: “We weren’t in the owner’s box drinking champagne.” Franklin paid for his share of the “cheap” tickets, he says, upper-deck seats along the first-base line. Whatever business they discussed did not prompt another rendezvous for more than a year.
Their next meeting took place July 9, 2004, when Franklin called to arrange a lunch. You can almost hear Weissman’s eyes roll when he wonders why nobody thought it odd that the accused conspirators went so long without talking. “He was so important that I didn’t speak to him for a year on an issue that was central to my job.”
During that year, Franklin had begun assisting a government investigation into AIPAC. He told the Washington Times in 2009 that he became ensnared with the FBI over accusations that he had provided sensitive information to CBS News. Indicted on five counts, Franklin pled guilty in 2005 and received a 13-year sentence, which was reduced to probation because of his government cooperation.
His 2004 reconnection with Weissman was part of that cooperation. They met on July 9 and July 21. At the second meeting, according to the indictment, Franklin revealed what he called “highly classified ‘Agency stuff,’” adding that Weissman could get in trouble for having the information.
There were no documents involved, just conversation, but as Franklin had promised him when they arranged the appointment, the details were important. “The important thing he had to tell me was that there were going to be killings of people in Iraq by the Iranians,” Weissman says, “and if I didn’t spread this word widely, people would die.”
Franklin, wired by the FBI, was setting him up. A May 2009 Wall Street Journal editorial called it “the worst form of entrapment,” putting Weissman in a life-or-death moral quandary on false pretenses. He acted on the information, sharing it with a reporter and an Israeli diplomat, among others. “I did pass it on. I felt I had no choice,” Weissman says. He adds that he first told AIPAC’s executive director, with the understanding that he would share it with the National Security Council at the White House.
A few days after the July 21 meeting, Weissman, his wife, and three kids left for their Massachusetts vacation, where that first FBI phone call came. On August 27, about three weeks after meeting the agents back in Washington, Weissman received another unexpected phone call, this one from Rosen early in the morning, saying he needed to get to the office as soon as possible: “Something’s going on. Some trouble.”
At AIPAC’s headquarters, Weissman was shown into a conference room and introduced to defense attorney Abbe Lowell, now his legal counsel. Rosen and Weissman were the targets of a federal investigation, Lowell told them, suspected of passing classified information from Franklin to the Israeli government.
Weeks and months ahead would be devoted to reconstructing their meetings with Franklin, but the dominant emotions of the moment were shock and fear. The lobbying group placed both Rosen and Weissman on paid leave and sent them home.
Later that afternoon, the family’s nanny told Weissman there were two men waiting outside to see him. It was a hot, sunny day. Kids yelping and dogs barking mixed with the growl of lawn mowers in his Bethesda, Maryland, neighborhood.
Weissman’s puppy, Meg, bounded out the door ahead of him. She greeted the two men in suits waiting on the lawn with enthusiastic affection her owner did not share. They were from the FBI.
After the dog settled down, the agents played a recording from one of Weissman’s recent meetings with Franklin. Jittery and under his lawyer’s orders not to talk, Weissman made a crack about how you never sound like yourself on tape. “I just blurted it out,” he says. “Later I read their report about meeting me, and they claimed that I denied it was my voice.”
Their encounter was brief. Weissman said he could not discuss the case, and the agents left without disturbing the suburban peace. A sense of terror engulfed him. That night’s CBS Evening News magnified it.
Introducing the lead story, Dan Rather described an investigation into a Pentagon mole suspected of passing information to Israel through AIPAC employees. No names were mentioned, but after waking up that morning oblivious to it all, Weissman was suddenly the subject of scandalous national news.
“That’s when the nightmare began.”
For almost a year Weissman could only imagine his fate. That was the worst part, the unknown. There was a grand-jury investigation, and the attorneys expected indictments to be handed down—but when and for what?
“I couldn’t think of anything I did that could have been construed as wrong on any level,” Weissman says. “I had spent the last ten years of my employment meeting with government officials, foreign officials, journalists, think-tank people, academics, all sorts of foreign-policy professionals, and the nature of the discussions were quite open and quite free.”
To some, those discussions involving Israel represent a particularly dubious form of lobbying that toes—and often crosses—the line between advocacy and espionage. Even critics who consider the lobbying process perfectly legal have questioned Israel’s influence on U.S. foreign policy, brought to bear by its politically connected American supporters.
Chicago political scientist John J. Mearsheimer is among the latter group. The R. Wendell Harrison distinguished service professor and codirector of the University’s Program on International Security Policy, Mearsheimer and Harvard’s Stephen M. Walt co-wrote The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007). They argue that the lobby’s power—exerted through a loose coalition including AIPAC and similar-minded organizations—has produced policies detrimental to both the United States and Israel. “No ethnic lobby has diverted that policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest,” Mearsheimer and Walt write. They argue that unconditional U.S. support for Israel inflames anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and complicates relationships with Arab allies.
The political strength of Israel’s supporters creates controversy, but it is hardly the only interest group seeking to influence the government, and its approach is not unique. “In the circular, echo-chamber world of official Washington, where government policy makers, members of Congress, analysts, lobbyists, and journalists are forever seeking to cull information from one another to gain an edge,” the New York Times reported in 2005, “such conversations are a routine part of doing business and influencing public policy.”
Indeed, long before charges were filed, the men’s attorneys began crafting a defense, emphasizing the routine Washington give-and-take the Times described, the messy sausage-making that even high-level government officials traded in to pursue their interests. In addition, their position was that the First Amendment permitted Weissman and Rosen to discuss sensitive information because they were not government employees.
Despite his confidence in his innocence, Weissman figured he would not remain an AIPAC employee for long. Regardless of the outcome, the stigma of the investigation would be too great. “I knew at some point they would face a choice between me or them. I knew what choice that would be,” Weissman says. “I knew everybody, including me, was expendable.”
At first AIPAC supported Rosen and Weissman, and an indemnification clause in its bylaws made the group liable for their legal bills, which ballooned into a multimillion-dollar defense. Heilizer, meanwhile, was a partner at a law firm, so Weissman’s potential unemployment would not affect the family’s lifestyle—no small comfort with their two high-school–age children approaching college and a third not far behind.
Financial security did not soothe Weissman’s nerves. Dread gripped him, draining his energy for even the most mundane activities. He couldn’t eat. Within months he lost 50 pounds. “I was a basket case,” he says, seized by the fear of government prosecution and perhaps a prison sentence, but still ignorant of the specifics.
Lowell predicted that the government’s strategy would resemble a corporate prosecution. The Justice Department would try to play the codefendants against each other, Lowell said, pressuring them, for example, to have separate attorneys. Weissman eventually did hire his own lawyer, but Lowell helped with the selection, and the defense teams worked together. Weissman and Rosen remain close friends.
Lowell also expected the prosecution to attempt to cut off AIPAC’s financial support with assurances that the organization could avoid legal trouble if it distanced itself from the individuals under investigation. Whether or not that was the prosecution’s intent, it was the result.
Rosen and Weissman returned to work for a few months in 2004–05 before being placed on leave again. During that second stint away, they were fired, and for a time AIPAC stopped paying their legal fees. The lobbying group claimed the men’s conduct had violated policy, though ultimately the indemnification clause still required it to pay for the attorneys.
By then so much of Weissman’s time and energy were focused on the investigation that the firing felt like simply another item on a growing list of indignities. His professional reputation had evaporated; he had few friends and colleagues to support him, in part because he feared they could be implicated if he reached out to them; and prison was a frightening possibility.
Heilizer’s repeated reassurances that he would eventually be vindicated sounded like empty hope. “No one could really guarantee that,” Weissman says, “and also, I knew that people were in prison who were innocent. That’s what really was the terrifying part.”
To deal with the personal trauma, he sought psychological help and joined a gym. “I eventually started taking meds,” he says, “which at least made me able to get up in the morning and sort of do a few things, and made it easier for me to work for the defense.” At that point, he finally had a specific charge to answer.
On August 4, 2005, the indictment was filed against Weissman, Rosen, and Franklin. To his lawyer’s surprise, Weissman was charged on only one count under the Espionage Act: “Conspiracy to communicate national defense information to persons not entitled to receive it.” Compared to Weissman’s wild imagination, the charge seemed almost mild, though the potential penalty was not—up to 12 years in prison.
“When it comes to classified information, there is a clear line in the law. Today’s charges are about crossing that line,” then–U.S. attorney Paul McNulty said when announcing the charges. “Those entrusted with safeguarding our nation’s secrets must remain faithful to that trust. Those not authorized to receive classified information must resist the temptation to acquire it, no matter what their motivation may be.”
The law, in fact, distinguishes between the disclosure of government secrets—that is, information it simply does not want to become public—and the protected “classified” category, says Geoffrey R. Stone, JD’71, the Law School’s Edward H. Levi distinguished service professor. In either case the Constitution specifically shields reporters, who have never been prosecuted for receiving or publishing classified information. For someone like Weissman, though, whose role included communicating with foreign officials, Stone says a different standard applies: “Viewed that way, he’s engaged in espionage,” Stone says. “So why, then, isn’t he obviously guilty?”
He cites two possible reasons: First, the Espionage Act lacks clarity about its application to private citizens in general. Second, Weissman’s actions were not considered harmful to U.S. interests. “The basic take on this should be that Weissman could not realistically be convicted,” Stone says, “because he’s not a public employee and he was not harming the U.S.”
Weissman’s attorneys argued exactly that. Their initial step was to file a motion to dismiss the charge on First Amendment grounds. U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Ellis denied the motion, triggering criticism that he had established a new legal principle—“espionage lite,” as the Washington Post put it—that could criminalize any private citizen’s discussion of government secrets.
Because Rosen and Weissman are the only nongovernment employees ever prosecuted under the Espionage Act, First Amendment advocates feared the case could have broad implications, stifling press freedom and creating a de facto Official Secrets Act that would silence all citizens on national-security issues.
Others argued that Ellis’s ruling made a conviction more difficult because it required the government to prove the “defendant’s bad-faith purpose either to harm the United States or to aid a foreign government.” That standard gave Weissman’s defense team confidence that he would be acquitted, but the case was a long way from resolution.
The sensitive nature of the evidence required a protracted series of hearings under the Classified Information Protection Act (CIPA) to determine how it would be presented in court. Trial dates were repeatedly set and postponed. “I don’t even know how many there were,” Weissman says.
So he waited and worried. Although the lawyers insisted he and Rosen attend the CIPA hearings, the defendants often were not allowed in the secure room where the decisions were made. Idle hours there and at the pretrial-services office, where accused criminals are monitored and questioned about alcohol and drug use or firearms possession, taught Weissman to bring a briefcase full of reading material. On his first couple of trips, he had only what the office provided—Reader’s Digest or brochures about federal prisons.
At home he distracted himself with interests he never had time to indulge before, studying American popular-music history, the northern migration of African Americans, and Mississippi River hydrology around New Orleans, a curiosity he explored after Hurricane Katrina.
More than a few times Weissman listened to Bob Dylan’s song about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter—The man the authorities came to blame/For something that he never done—and he considered writing a biography of 1950s doo-wop singer Clyde McPhatter.
Yet his interests could not replace the professional identity he felt the case had stolen from him. Finding a position in his field was out of the question, and any job seemed impossible while under indictment.
That albatross remained through what felt like endless rounds of legal maneuvering. Several decisions went in the defense’s favor, including the right to subpoena then–Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top foreign-policy officials to testify about disclosing classified information. J. William Leonard, the former head of the Information Security Oversight Office that determines classification policy, also was to be a defense expert.
In February 2009 a new White House administration and a ruling that the defense could introduce classified information as evidence prompted calls to end the prosecution. The Wall Street Journal described it as “a golden opportunity for President Barack Obama’s Justice Department to drop this misbegotten case.”
In early May 2009, Weissman’s phone rang again. This time he received the news he had waited five years to hear: the government had dismissed the charges against him and Rosen. Weissman’s relief was mixed with a slight twinge of disappointment that he would never hear a jury declare him not guilty. The feeling did not last long; he knew he could not have controlled the outcome in court. “I was terrified of a trial.”
The terror is gone now, but the episode is not over yet. Even though his legal peril has passed, Weissman still has no job, and he worries about the lasting effects of his trauma. His anger at the government hasn’t dissipated, but he does feel satisfaction for refusing to buckle under the case against him.
“Clearly they wanted this to end with a guilty plea, but I feel good that I was able to stand up to them, because I knew I was innocent,” Weissman says. “I basically faced the full power of the federal government. I know I have the strength to endure just about anything after that.”
Return to top