The New York Times reported Tuesday on the conviction and imprisonment of Shamai K. Leibowitz, a dual citizen of the United States and Israel, who worked as a translator for the FBI and leaked information to a blogger.
The Times reported that the federal judge who sentenced Leibowitz to 20 months in prison last year, had no clue about the substance of the leaked materials:
“All I know is that it’s a serious case,” Judge Alexander Williams Jr., of United States District Court in Maryland, said at the sentencing in May 2010. “I don’t know what was divulged other than some documents, and how it compromised things, I have no idea.”
Now the reason for the extraordinary secrecy surrounding the Obama administration’s first prosecution for leaking information to the news media seems clear: Mr. Leibowitz, a contract Hebrew translator, passed on secret transcripts of conversations caught on F.B.I. wiretaps of the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Those overheard by the eavesdroppers included American supporters of Israel and at least one member of Congress, according to the blogger, Richard Silverstein.
Silverstein’s blog is titled Tikkun Olam: Make the World a Better Place; and he has updated the story that broke in the New York Times.
The Times story, by Scott Shane, stated that material supplied by Leibowitz to Silverstein “describes a call between an unnamed Jewish activist in Minnesota and the Israeli Embassy about an embassy official’s meeting with Representative Keith Ellison, Democrat of Minnesota, who was planning an official trip to Gaza.”
In an exclusive interview with the American Jewish World on Wednesday, Silverstein said that the “unnamed Jewish activist in Minnesota” was a person who had “some affiliation” with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC).
“I do recall that there was a lot of discussion in that conversation about Keith Ellison (left), and about his hostility toward Israel,” said Silverstein. “They used the fact that he had gone on a trade mission to Saudi Arabia, shortly before the conversation happened between the JCRC person and the diplomat, to testify, in their eyes, to how anti-Israel he was.”
Silverstein told the AJW that the “local Minneapolis person was… updating the [Israeli] diplomat on what they knew about Ellison’s schedule… then the JCRC person said, ‘and he’s going on a trip to Gaza with [Rep.] Brian Baird, of Washington state.’
“They were talking about how harmful this would be to Israel, and how [Ellison and Baird] were trying to hurt Israel by this kind of activity,” Silverstein recalled.
Ellison and Baird traveled together to Gaza in 2009, following the three-week Israeli military incursion dubbed “Operation Cast Lead,” which sought to end the rain of rocket and mortar fire on Israel from Palestinian militants in Gaza. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., also visited the Gaza Strip at the same time on a separate excursion.
In an interview with the American Jewish World on Wednesday, Ellison said that he was surprised by the story in the New York Times. He had no knowledge about the conversation reported between the local Jewish activist and the Israeli diplomat.
Rep. Ellison said he was initially disturbed by the story, but then relieved to find that the FBI “was not tapping me…. They may or may not be tapping me, but my name got brought up in this because they were tapping the Israeli embassy, and my name got mentioned because I was going to Gaza.”
Prior to his 2009 trip to Gaza, Ellison made no arrangements with Israeli embassy officials.
“No. I had no contact with the embassy at all…. I didn’t meet with them, [about] planning to go to Gaza,” he told the AJW.
Ellison recalled a meeting with Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, in which he expressed concerns about the blockade of Gaza, and other issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, Oren was not appointed until May 3, 2009, after the conversation detailed in the transcript of the FBI wiretap.
The congressman said that he has met with Israeli diplomats over the years and discussed a range of issues. “I have cordial relations with them,” Ellison commented. “They’re welcome in my office any time they want to talk.”
(Ellison made a second trip to Gaza in 2010, which was reported in the AJW.)
Regarding the identification of someone affiliated with the JCRC briefing the Israeli diplomat, Steve Hunegs, JCRC executive director, told the AJW on Wednesday that neither he nor any of his staffers have been in conversation with Israeli embassy officials in Washington.
Hunegs said that the only exception was in 2008, when they were involved with arranging logistics for the visit by Sallai Meridor, then Israeli ambassador to the U.S., to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.
Responding to a follow-up e-mail, Hunegs acknowledged that local JCRC officials talk with Israeli diplomats posted at the consulate in Chicago.
Hunegs exlained in his e-mail message:
As part of our work fostering a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, the JCRC communicates from time to time with the Consul General’s office in Chicago. As you might imagine, some of our conversations necessarily concern federal legislation and policy towards Israel and the Middle East. Accordingly, the JCRC’s conversations with the Consul General’s office have included discussions about members of Minnesota’s Congressional delegation, including Representative Ellison.
The JCRC enjoys a strong working relationship with Representative Ellison and his staff on matters of agreement and disagreement. In fact, within just the upcoming week, the JCRC is delighted that Representative Ellison has agreed to participate in a September 11th commemoration that the JCRC helped organize at the Minnesota State Capitol. Representative Ellison will also join the JCRC’s Ethan Roberts, as a keynote speaker, for the annual Jewish Federations of North America’s Government Affairs Institute Capitol Hill luncheon. Finally, on the subject of the Middle East, the JCRC is grateful to Representative Ellison for organizing and drafting the recent letter from Muslim-American leaders calling for the release of Gilad Shalit.
Blogger Silverstein told the New York Times that Leibowitz, the imprisoned former FBI translator, turned over the transcripts of wiretapped conversations from the Israeli embassy, because “of concerns about Israel’s aggressive efforts to influence Congress and public opinion, and fears that Israel might strike nuclear facilities in Iran, a move he saw as potentially disastrous.”
Silverstein wrote on his blog this week that the real story is not about the U.S. wiretapping the embassy of an ally, but ”that Israel’s diplomats were finding out who was naughty and nice to Israel in the U.S. Congress in order to prepare for a possible run-up to a war against Iran.”
In an e-mail message to the AJW on Wednesday night, Silverstein recalled details from his April 2009 blog posts based on the wiretap materials. He wrote that Israeli officials had a “problematic” relationship with both Ellison and U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, DFL-Minn.
On April 28, 2009, Silverstein posted a message on his blog: “Earlier this month, a senior official of Israel’s D.C. embassy contacted a Minneapolis Jewish communal staffer, to inform him about a D.C. meeting between Congress member Keith Ellison and deputy chief of mission, Jeremy Issacharoff.”
Silverstein, in both his phone conversation and a subsequent e-mail, mentioned that the wiretapped conversation between the person affiliated with the JCRC and the Israeli diplomat included a discussion that compared Ellison, the first Muslim member of the U.S. House, with André Carson, D.-Ind., the second Muslim ever elected to the House. Paraphrasing the conversation, Silverstein said that the local Jewish activist and the Israeli diplomat deemed Ellison to be the “bad Muslim,” who was too independent in his views and uncontrollable; and Carson was the “promising Muslim,” who was seen as more amenable to persuasion by Israeli officials.
The Israelis were engaged in a program of “perception management,” according to Silverstein. They were working with Jewish activists around the U.S. to propagate their views about the threat from Iran, and to minimize the negative publicity following the Gaza War. Silverstein also said that the Israelis drafted op-eds, which were distributed to pro-Israel activists to submit under their names to newspapers for publication.
Silverstein said that the Israelis approached things “sort of like a baseball game, where they were rating members [of Congress] by how pro-Israel or anti-Israel they were, and they were using very narrow terms to do so.”
Regarding the conversation between someone affiliated with the JCRC and the Israeli embassy official, Silverstein could not remember exactly which person said what, and who initiated certain topics. At the request of Leibowitz, Silverstein destroyed the leaked materials.
“They both were agreeing essentially with what I’m saying, with the kind of attitudes” expressed about Rep. Ellison, Silverstein said, regarding the transcript of the wiretapped conversation. They were “updating each other and keeping tabs” on Ellison.
Update — 1
Richard Silverstein has posted his commentary on the AJW story.
In his post yesterday, the Seattle blogger questions whether it is the “role of the official representatives of the American Jewish community to consult with Israeli government officials about local Representatives who Israel (and they) feel are “bad for Israel… Is it right to peruse Congress members’ travel schedules to inform the Israeli government when local Representatives may be taking trips deemed harmful to Israel’s interests?”
Silverstein concludes that the kind of activities engaged in by someone from the local JCRC and Israeli diplomats “isn’t kosher. And it isn’t American. I should make clear that I’m not opposed to American Jews lobbying on behalf of American Jewish interests. I’m not opposed to American Jewish lobbying on behalf of a strong, safe Israel. But I am opposed to crossing the red line so that we become mere extensions of Israel’s interests in this country. I am opposed to those such as Aipac who claim that there is never such a distinction. This is wrong and this is pernicious both for Israel and American Jews.”
Update — 2
On Friday afternoon, Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, sent a response to the story on AJWNEWS.com, the Web site of the American Jewish World:
We were perplexed to read The American Jewish World’s internet story from September 8th repeating a two-year recollection of a Seattle-based blogger about an unnamed Jewish activist heard on a FBI wiretap claiming an affiliation with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC). To set the record straight, no one authorized to speak on behalf of the JCRC made the negative personal comments about Representative Keith Ellison attributed to the anonymous Jewish activist.
The JCRC, a strictly non-partisan organization, represents a broad political spectrum of Jewish constituents. We pride ourselves on maintaining strong positive relationships with all members of Congress. In particular, we enjoy a warm relationship with Representative Ellison and his staff. At no time has anyone at the JCRC conveyed negative personal impressions about Representative Ellison or any other member of Congress to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C.
We were pleased that Representative Ellison, on his own accord, reached out to the JCRC to offer his ongoing support for us and our continued work together. Representative Ellison understands that these negative personal comments did not originate from the JCRC staff, from anyone authorized to speak for the JCRC, and most importantly, do not reflect the views of the JCRC.
From our work together on Darfur, the Interfaith Day of Service, advocating for the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, improving the lives of Minnesota’s seniors and other vulnerable populations, to our most recent joint participation in Minnesota’s 9/11 commemoration, we have proudly stood side by side with Representative Ellison on these important issues.
Looking to the future, we know that this unfortunate incident will only bring us closer and the JCRC looks forward to our work with Representative Ellison to make Minnesota a better place and help bring peace to the Middle East.