AIPAC, a Not-So-Benign Night Flower – By Janet McMahon
One could be forgiven for thinking that the last three letters of AIPAC stand for “political action committee.” But since the American Israel Public Affairs Committee does not itself make campaign contributions to political candidates, technically it is not a PAC. Curiously, however, the 30-odd “unaffiliated” pro-Israel PACs, most with deceptively innocuous names, all seem to give to the same candidates—almost as if there were a guiding intelligence behind their contributions. In the eyes of the Federal Election Commission, AIPAC is a “membership organization” rather than a political committee. This means that, unlike actual PACs, AIPAC is not required to file public reports on its income and expenditures.
Not for nothing, however, did Fortune magazine once name it the second most powerful lobby in Washington. So it’s easy to understand why, like a night flower that blooms in the dark and dies with the light of day, this particular organization which advances the interests of a foreign government has fought long and hard to ensure that its funding sources and expenditures are not exposed to public scrutiny.
Despite its best efforts, however, unwanted light does occasionally shine on AIPAC’s activities. Most dramatically, perhaps, two of its top operatives, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, were indicted on espionage charges in 2005. Four years later federal prosecutors dropped the charges when it became clear that Judge T.S. Ellis’ numerous rulings in favor of the defendants would require the release of sensitive government documents. Rosen then sued his former employer for defamation, claiming that AIPAC routinely dealt in classified information and that he was in no way a rogue employee, as AIPAC had claimed.
A related case of unwanted publicity involved former Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), who was overheard on a 2006 NSA wiretap talking to someone described by CQ’s Jeff Stein as a “suspected Israeli agent”—thought to be Haim Saban, a major AIPAC contributor. “I’m a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel,” Saban described himself to The New York Times. During the course of their conversation Harman agreed to lobby the Justice Department to reduce the charges against Rosen and Weissman; in exchange, Saban would pressure then-House minority leader Nancy Pelosi to appoint Harman chair of the House Intelligence Committee following the 2006 elections, which the Democrats were expected to, and did, win. (Harman, who ultimately was not appointed chair, recently left Capitol Hill to head the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; a few blocks away, the Brookings Institution houses the Saban Center for Middle East Policy.)
Even though Pelosi resisted any pressure she may have received from Saban—reportedly because of personal animosity toward Harman as much as anything—she has demonstrated her sensitivity to AIPAC’s concerns. After Pelosi became speaker of the House following the Democrats’ 2006 victory, a provision was included in an Iraq war spending bill which would require the president to seek, with some exceptions, congressional approval before using military force against Iran. Since the Constitution grants the power to declare war to Congress, not to the president, this would appear to be uncontroversial. But AIPAC found it objectionable, and lobbied hard to have that provision struck from the bill. Speaking at AIPAC’s March 2007 annual meeting, Pelosi was booed when she described the Iraq war as being a failure on several counts. Shortly thereafter, the offending language was withdrawn from the pending legislation. After all, what’s an oath of office between friends?
Nor was that by any means the only legislation tailored to AIPAC’s wishes. Its tax-exempt fund-raising arm, the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), which AIPAC describes on its Web site as a “charitable organization affiliated with AIPAC,” spends the bulk of its $24 million budget paying for congressional trips to Israel. According to the Web site LegiStorm, “When Congress was working on strengthening the travel ban in 2006, reports indicated AIPAC lobbied for an exemption from the ban on lobbyist-sponsored travel. The organization did not receive a specific exemption, but the loophole on allowing non-profit travel allows the organization to continue to sponsor travel.” The non-profit AIEF simply certifies that it “does not retain or employ a registered federal lobbyist.”
That this was no accident was confirmed, perhaps inadvertently, by Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. In a 2009 C-SPAN interview, host Brian Lamb asked about the 2006 travel rules adopted as a result of the Jack Abramoff scandal whereby an “institution of higher learning” can sponsor trips. “Well,” Sloan blithely responded, “this was initially even called the AIPAC exception, there was this exception that 501(c)(3) organizations and universities could, in fact, still sponsor trips.” To Lamb’s characteristic “Why?” she replied vaguely, “That was the compromise that was reached in the House. They didn’t want to ban all private travel and they thought that these were the kind of trips that were more easily explained and didn’t have the same kind of appearance of corruption.”
More recent sightings of AIPAC’s “invisible hand” include a May 2009 letter to President Barack Obama ostensibly written by then-House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia—among the top five House recipients of pro-Israel PAC contributions. As the Washington Post’s Al Kamen discovered, however, the e-mail attachment of the letter, which called on the president to act as a “trusted mediator and devoted friend of Israel,” revealed its true origin: it was titled “AIPAC Letter Hoyer-Cantor May 2009.pdf.”
Do Americans want their laws and foreign policies drafted to serve the interests of a foreign government? At the very least, AIPAC’s funding sources and expenditures should be available for scrutiny by the citizens of its host country. In the meantime, the upcoming Move Over AIPAC conference, to be held in Washington, DC May 21-24—at the very time AIPAC will be hosting Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his congressional supplicants at its annual Washington policy conference—will shine a critical and much-needed light on the means and ends of the Israel Lobby’s flagship organization. There concerned Americans can discover, among other things, whether their elected representatives put the needs of their constituents ahead of Israel’s demands—and visit Capitol Hill to register their opinions. For more information, visit www.moveoveraipac.org.
— Janet McMahon is managing editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, www.wrmea.com, whose May/June 2011 issue includes totals for 2010 pro-Israel PAC contributions to all congressional candidates.
Take action by attending Move Over AIPAC, a gathering in Washington DC from May 21-24, 2011, to expose AIPAC and build the vision for a new US foreign policy in the Middle East! More information can be found at www.MoveOverAIPAC.org.