In 2009, Shamai Leibowitz was working secretly for the FBI, translating wiretapped conversations among Israeli diplomats in this country. He passed some transcripts of these conversations to me, which described an Israeli diplomatic campaign in this country to create a hostile environment for relations with Iran. I published excerpts from them in my blog, Tikun Olam.
Leibowitz comes from a family of distinguished Israeli Orthodox public intellectuals.
He first came to prominence inside Israel when he signed a statement refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. He went on to earn a law degree and was one of the Israeli attorneys who represented Palestinian Marwan Barghouti in his terror trial. In a statement certain to enrage Israelis and the Shin Bet officials responsible for apprehending Barghouti, Leibowitz likened his client's leadership of his people to that of Moses. Though he was referring to the fact that Moses killed an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite slave - which caused him to flee his homeland, accused of being the ancient equivalent of a terrorist - the subtlety of the historical comparison was undoubtedly lost on many Israelis.
Leibowitz came to this country as a New Israel Fund (NIF) fellow to earn a US law degree in international human rights at Georgetown University. Though he completed his degree, NIF ended his affiliation with its program when the Israeli spoke at a Cambridge public event endorsing a boycott of Israel. The story made its way into the Israel press thanks to pro-Israel activists monitoring his activities here. When a mini-furor broke out both in Israel and here, NIF, showing its support for free speech, dropped Leibowitz from the program, even though he never stated that his remarks at the Massachusetts event represented NIF in any way. The NGO simply couldn't risk the wrath of the Israeli government since all its programming in Israel might be placed in jeopardy if it irritated the authorities.
Living in Washington, DC, the Israeli activist next took a job teaching American diplomats being posted to Israel about the country, its culture, history and language. Once again, the pro-Israel crowd reported to Ben Caspit, Israel's right-wing columnist, that Leibowitz was now working for the State Department. He was subsequently fired from this job also.
The Israeli Orthodox Jew was known in his religious community as a fine Torah reader who beautifully chanted the Torah portion at his Orthodox synagogue. However, when a well-connected member discovered Leibowitz' "past," they told the rabbi that he must take this great communal honor from him or they would leave the congregation. Such shunning is, unfortunately, all too common in the Jewish community (remember Spinoza?) for those holding unpopular views of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Luckily, Leibowitz discovered a conservative synagogue whose rabbi embraced him despite his "baggage." Throughout his subsequent trials and tribulations, this rabbi and community have stood behind Leibowitz and his family.
I began writing my blog in 2003. At the start, it was quite a lonely pursuit and there were almost no other blogs like it espousing a progressive approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict. In searching for an online community, I came across Shamai's Pursuing Justice blog. When I read his last name, I presumed he might be related to the eminent Leibowitz family and wrote to him. He confirmed he was the grandson of Yeshaia Leibowitz, one of the most distinguished Israeli philosophers and public intellectuals. His aunt was Nechama Leibowitz, an eminent professor of Bible at Hebrew University, with whom I studied when I was a student there.
Shamai and I emailed each other infrequently. But our correspondence picked up during Operation Cast Lead, when we were both aghast at the role the IDF played in decimating Gaza and killing 1,400 - 1,100 of whom were civilians.
After the war ended, he called me on the phone, which was unusual because I'd never spoken to him directly before. He asked if I wanted to see some materials he could send me. Until then, I'd never had anyone offer me materials in such a way, but I agreed to review them.
Shortly thereafter, a package arrived in the mail. When I opened it, frankly I knew I was seeing official government materials, but I didn't understand what I'd received, so I called him. It was then that Shamai explained that he was an FBI translator, responsible for translating tapes of Israeli diplomatic conversations which his agency was intercepting.
He also explained that he was convinced from his work on these recordings that the Israel foreign ministry and its officials in this country were responsible for a perception management campaign directed against Iran. He worried that such an effort might end with either Israel or the US attacking Iran and that this would be a disaster for both countries. Though he knew he might be putting himself in jeopardy, if he did nothing, he risked looking back on a disaster which he might've helped avert.
Lest anyone dismiss his concerns, note that Israel's former Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, a man known for extreme taciturnity, publicly warned that Ehud Barak and Bibi Netanyahu proposed to a senior ministerial committee in 2010 that Israel attack Iran. Dagan almost single-handedly persuaded a majority of the ministers to defer an attack and to try nonlethal means instead, such as the Stuxnet cyber-attack, which Israel is known to have devised with likely US assistance. The Mossad director called a military attack on Iran the "stupidest thing I've ever heard." He knew, as Anthony Cordesman has reported, it would likely kill thousands of Iranians (directly) and Israelis (indirectly through revenge terror attacks), lead to massive responses by Iran and its proxies and possibly cause the closing of the Straits of Hormuz, a skyrocketing in world oil prices and potential economic catastrophe.
This month, Haaretz published this frightening characterization of Barak and Bibi's current attitude on the subject:
Anyone who has spoken with Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in small forums in recent months was astonished to hear a firm, determined, almost messianic tone regarding the nuclear threat and how it should be handled.
So, the danger of such an attack is very real. As we used to hear characters intone in TV and movies about nuclear apocalypse during my 1960s youth: "This is not a drill."
Leibowitz knew I agreed with his pessimistic view of the situation, as I'd written on the subject before, and he figured I might have an interest in making these documents public. But first, I recognized the danger that this would pose to him, so we had many discussions about what to do with the material. I asked him for permission to consult confidentially with other journalists, as neither of us had leaked or published classified documents before.
I warned him a number of times that publishing the material could have serious negative consequences. At the time, I only considered that he might lose his job or the right to practice law or that the government might harass him for what he did. I didn't consider the possibility that they might actually prosecute him for these leaks, which was what happened.
After these consultations, we both decided to go forward, but in what we felt was a discreet, controlled way. I would leak portions of the transcripts in a format designed to conceal the source and the specific identity of those individuals overheard in the surveillance tapes. I did this for about a month and published about five posts, including one in The Guardian UK's Comment is Free.
The material published included references to Israeli diplomats briefing President-elect Obama on Operation Cast Lead while the war was being prosecuted, presumably in an effort to persuade him of the importance of continuing it, despite the pressure the incoming president was under to speak out against it. They revealed private, late-night meetings between the Israeli ambassador and a key Obama operative at which they presumably discussed how and whether the war would end in relation to the president-elect's upcoming inauguration. Note that the war ended on January 18, and Obama was inaugurated on January 20. I'm certain this was no accident, but rather a carefully choreographed deal between the two sides. Obama never criticized the war publicly. Now we know why.
I noted that an Israeli diplomat ghost wrote some or all of a Boston Herald op-ed attacking Iran, to which a prominent Jewish attorney and community leader signed his name. In Minneapolis, the local Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) briefed the Chicago Israeli Consulate on the travel schedule and a meeting it held with Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim-American elected to Congress. Ellison, according to the tapes, was viewed as hostile to Israeli interests. In fact, the JCRC official told the Israeli diplomat that Ellison had just led a local trade delegation to Saudi Arabia (a big no-no) and was planning to join Rep. Brian Baird (D-Washington) in a fact-finding mission to Gaza in the aftermath of the war. This trip, too. was viewed with alarm by both parties in the transcripts.
"The JCRC director conceded implicitly in The American Jewish World that he monitored Ellison and reported to the consulate:
'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 ... Accordingly, the JCRC's conversations with the Consul General's office have included discussions about members of Minnesota’s Congressional delegation, including Representative Ellison.'"
In Texas, a member of Congress held a meeting with a prominent Jewish campaign donor and consular official to discuss ways of advancing Israel's legislative campaign against Iran, including punitive sanctions and alarming the US public with the dangers posed by that country and its supposed effort to produce a nuclear weapon.
In September 2008, before one of the presidential debates, an Israeli operative attempted unsuccessfully to meet with a debate panelist in order to plant a question about war against Iran: Would the candidates take military action against that country or accept a nuclear-armed Iran? The Israelis did NOT want any question that asked what the candidates might do if Israel attacked Iran.
Israeli diplomats were heard touting pro-Israel members of Congress and bad mouthing those viewed as hostile. There were tutorials in cultivation of members. These are excerpts of a post I wrote on April 28, 2009, detailing the methods and goals of such cultivation:
... Last month, Israeli diplomats in Jerusalem, Chicago and Washington made a series of calls to review the status of relationships with the Midwest's members of Congress. Senior diplomats from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained to Israeli diplomatic personnel that the purpose of getting to know these elected officials was to advance Israel's agenda in Congress.
Israeli diplomats are most interested in members of Congress who serve on the intelligence, defense, foreign affairs and appropriations committees since those deal with issues of most concern to Israel. This explains peripherally, why they would devote so much time and attention to cultivating Jane Harman, since she stood to become chair of the House intelligence committee if Pelosi had agreed to retain her on the committee (which she didn't).
The Israeli officials ... were annoyed at their inability to gain access to Sen. Russell Feingold despite the fact that his sister is a rabbi and has visited Israel. Note that a trip to Israel in their view is like a tetanus inoculation bestowing excellent pro-Israel health and antibodies against "pro-Arab propaganda."
When a diplomat described Rep. David Obey as not a great friend of Israel and borderline hostile, the DC embassy representative reminded his staff that they could schedule meetings with staff when Congress members are not available (which presumably would positively influence their boss).
... The Israelis have noted that Sen. John Thune introduced anti-Iran legislation in the last session and that Rep. Mark Kirk planned to introduce new punitive legislation targeting that country. The Israelis sang the praises of Sen. Sam Brownback, who planned a conference that would exert economic pressure on Iran. The D.C. embassy plans to follow up with him to encourage his plans.
Sen. Clare McCaskill is a particular focus of the Israelis because she is a confidant of the president and a member of the armed services and homeland security committees. The Israelis plan to establish close relations with McCaskill and her staff. Another Missouri legislator, Russ Carnahan, receives no such royal treatment. He is viewed, like Obey, as not friendly to Israel. Why? Because during a meeting with him, he highlighted to the Israeli representative his sympathy for the poor people of Gaza. The reason for this sympathy in the eyes of the Israelis? The legislator was poisoned by information from the Arab lobby.
... One Israeli diplomat said that members of the St. Louis Jewish community conveyed their "expectations" to Carnahan and reminded him on which side his bread was buttered.
Israeli diplomatic staff have noted a problematic relationship with two Minnesota representatives, Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum. Though they consider Ellison, a Muslim, "not anti-Israel," they noted he was quite attentive to the Arab lobby. Clearly they were keeping a close eye on Ellison's schedule as they knew he was receiving an UNWRA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] briefing that very day about conditions in Gaza ... The Israelis noted with displeasure that Ellison has teamed up with Washington State Rep. Brian Baird (the two visited Gaza together) ...
... The Israelis are monitoring a new Indiana representative Andre Carson who like Ellison is Muslim. But it seems they're playing "good Muslim, bad Muslim," as Carson, they noted, hasn't yet taken any "radical" positions and therefore might serve as a counter-weight to "bad Muslim" Ellison.
In the process of publishing this material, the Israelis became aware that their security was breached. They expressed concern about it, considered various possibilities for the origin of the leak (a mole was one theory), but continued their conversations. Eventually, Shamai thought it wasn't a good idea to continue with our project as he didn't wish to compromise the FBI investigation any more than necessary. He asked me to destroy the files I had, which I did by burning them.
Subsequently, late one night, I received an alarming phone call from Shamai in which he disjointedly disparaged my work, told me I was wasting my time and that everything I'd done was "silly." It was so out of character that I was completely befuddled by his behavior. At that point, I knew our working partnership was at an end. But I didn't consider at the time that perhaps he knew the FBI was already monitoring him and perhaps listening to the conversation.
Several months later, I discovered that Shamai had been indicted for leaking materials to me. I was shocked and troubled. But, largely, I felt powerless, since going public would only jeopardize him further. I consulted an attorney who warned me against it. I contacted friends of his, contributed to his legal fund and did whatever I could to defend him privately to journalists who contacted me.
It is almost unheard of for the federal government to prosecute employees who leak to journalists. The last such prosecution was of Samuel Morison in the early 1980s. Morison, who leaked a photograph of an advanced Soviet battleship to a military publication in return for money, received about the same sentence as Shamai. The former was also eventually pardoned by President Bill Clinton. In contrast, the FBI translator acted purely out of principle, received no compensation and did nothing to harm US military interests nor did he help a US enemy, as it could be argued Morison may have done.
I learned, this past summer, that Shamai was about to be released from prison. At around that time, I heard from Daniel Ellsberg on Facebook about one of the Israeli human rights cases about which I reported. I decided to confide in him about what had happened because I was beginning to form some ideas that my one-time partnership with Shamai should be more widely known.
It was Ellsberg who'd likened Leibowitz to Bradley Manning and called him a whistleblower. So, I contacted the Pentagon Papers leaker and I said to him that the Israeli activist was a whistleblower, but not in the traditional conception of the term. He didn't blow the whistle on the United States or one of its agencies or programs. Instead, he blew the whistle on surreptitious foreign diplomatic activity in this country which he felt jeopardized US interests.
When The New York Times finally reported on this story earlier this month, the headline (though not the substance of the reporting) got the issues wrong as it focused on the US spying on Israel. That's not the story, as Israel no doubt spies on the US embassy in that country. The true story was why and how Israeli diplomats were intervening so obtrusively in US political life. This was one of the reasons the FBI needed to know what they were doing here.
I went public for two reasons: one was to expose Israel's propaganda campaign in this country against Iran. But just as importantly, I wanted Americans to know why Shamai Leibowitz did what he did. I wanted them to know that not only was he a whistleblower, a profile in courage, but that he is a person of conscience, who faced the full force of the US government during his prosecution. I wanted the world to know Shamai was a sacrificial victim who deserved to be honored rather than imprisoned.
Steve Rosen, when the government prosecuted him for receiving US government classified materials and leaking them to the Israeli government, got a gold-plated $8-million legal defense. His team was so strong that it fought for its clients tooth and nail and won a dismissal of all charges against them.
Shamai had no well-funded organization at his back. No family trust fund to protect him. He faced the choice of a jail sentence or a lifetime of repaying legal fees (or bankruptcy). This is a choice that no one in his position should ever be forced to make. He, no doubt, took the choice that was least objectionable.
Shamai's prosecution is part of an alarming, aggressive Obama administration pursuit of such whistleblowers - who have included James Sterling and Thomas Drake. Drake, in particular, just faced down the government and reached a plea deal in which he was legally vindicated. But he had to bankrupt himself to do so. Those civil liberties activists who hoped for more and better from this administration compared to the previous one have been disappointed. Shamai Leibowitz' prosecution is a black mark on the legacy of the Obama administration.
I, too, face some jeopardy, though the government has never prosecuted a journalist for publishing a government leak. If they came after me, it would be a first. But we've learned, unfortunately, that anything's possible.
In all fairness, I should add that the government never approached me to testify in this case. Though if Shamai had resisted a plea bargain, I undoubtedly would've been placed in the awkward position of being pressured to testify, as Judith Miller was. I wasn't contacted until after Leibowitz agreed to a plea bargain. And that questioning was not adversarial. Also the government agreed not to reveal my involvement and did not do so. That's at least some consolation.
Finally, I think Americans should salute Shamai Leibowitz and wish him well. I know he has suffered a great deal and getting on with his life will be hard. If anyone deserves a break, he does.