Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 1, 2007

The Slow-Motion AIPAC Case

On August 4, 2005, Keith Weissman and Steven J. Rosen, two employees of AIPAC, were indicted for receiving classified information and then passing it along to reporters and to the officials of a foreign government, namely, the state of Israel. Up until a few weeks ago, their trial was set to commence this coming Monday, June 4. It has now been delayed, for the umpteenth time, to an unspecified date this fall.

The Sixth Amendment to our Constitution states that in “all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial.” But Weissman and Rosen have been dangling in legal limbo for nearly two years, and an end to their ordeal is not yet in sight. Much, if not almost all, of the delay can be laid at the feet of the prosecutors, who repeatedly have been caught unprepared by decisions of the court.

In the most recent instance, T.S. Ellis III, one of the most thoughtful and scholarly judges sitting on the federal bench, rejected the prosecution’s proposal for handling classified evidence during the trial, which would have required all participants in the courtroom (save the public) to talk about it using a complex code. Among other criticisms leveled by Ellis was that this “would make it virtually impossible for defendants to conduct effective cross-examination of witnesses.”

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On August 4, 2005, Keith Weissman and Steven J. Rosen, two employees of AIPAC, were indicted for receiving classified information and then passing it along to reporters and to the officials of a foreign government, namely, the state of Israel. Up until a few weeks ago, their trial was set to commence this coming Monday, June 4. It has now been delayed, for the umpteenth time, to an unspecified date this fall.

The Sixth Amendment to our Constitution states that in “all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial.” But Weissman and Rosen have been dangling in legal limbo for nearly two years, and an end to their ordeal is not yet in sight. Much, if not almost all, of the delay can be laid at the feet of the prosecutors, who repeatedly have been caught unprepared by decisions of the court.

In the most recent instance, T.S. Ellis III, one of the most thoughtful and scholarly judges sitting on the federal bench, rejected the prosecution’s proposal for handling classified evidence during the trial, which would have required all participants in the courtroom (save the public) to talk about it using a complex code. Among other criticisms leveled by Ellis was that this “would make it virtually impossible for defendants to conduct effective cross-examination of witnesses.”

Ellis also noted that while the government was arguing that the national-defense information at issue was too sensitive to reveal, under the prosecution’s proposed scheme, “the government’s asserted overriding interest [in preserving secrecy] is not treated as such by the government itself,” given that the national-defense information at issue would have been disclosed both to jurors lacking security clearances and to other witnesses.

The prosecutors, having had their proposal—preposterously flawed on its face—tossed out for its “fatal” defects, were thus forced to go back to agencies of the U.S. government to figure out some other way of handling the secret information that lies at the core of the case.

Much of this material is apparently now to be declassified, which will consume yet more time, and which further calls into question the prosecutors’ previous insistence that disclosure of the information would be damaging to national security.

Meanwhile, both of the defendants are out of work and must live under humiliating restrictions, like the requirement that they get permission from the judge if they want to leave the environs of Washington, D.C. AIPAC itself, threatened by prosecutors wielding the now discredited and partially withdrawn Thompson memorandum, fired both men and has declined to pay their legal bills. One of the defendants has children in college to support, the other is in ill health. Two years of their lives have already effectively been taken from them.

I am on record strongly favoring the prosecution of leakers of classified information, and in certain circumstances specified by unambiguous black-letter law, I also favor the prosecution of recipients of such leaks. But the facts in this instance suggest something else entirely, namely that it is not leakers and/or their accomplices but the prosecutors themselves who are running amok.

Even as the Department of Justice ignores a number of leaks that have severely compromised our national security, it has been using a novel interpretation of a notoriously vague statute to hound two men for behavior that, at worst, was imprudent, and at best is something that is pervasive in the corridors of Washington.

Although ostensibly presumed innocent until proven guilty, Weissman and Rosen have already been punished in multiple ways and been made to serve hard time for a crime that has not yet gone to trial.

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Weekend Reading

On Monday, an international conference will open in Prague, headed jointly by the former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, former President of the Czech Republic Václav Havel, and former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar. The Conference on Democracy and Security will play host to reformers, dissidents, and democracy activists from every quarter of the world, as well as political leaders including President George W. Bush. Its purpose is to provide a voice for global democracy—something COMMENTARY has been doing for decades. On the eve of the conference, we offer a number of items from our archives on the promotion of democracy and the protection of human rights worldwide.

Defending and Advancing Freedom: A Symposium
November 2005

Life, Liberty, Property
Richard Pipes – March 1999

Democracy for Everyone?
Peter L. Berger – September 1983

Human Rights and American Foreign Policy: A Symposium
November 1981

Dictatorships and Double Standards
Jeane J. Kirkpatrick – November 1979

On Monday, an international conference will open in Prague, headed jointly by the former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, former President of the Czech Republic Václav Havel, and former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar. The Conference on Democracy and Security will play host to reformers, dissidents, and democracy activists from every quarter of the world, as well as political leaders including President George W. Bush. Its purpose is to provide a voice for global democracy—something COMMENTARY has been doing for decades. On the eve of the conference, we offer a number of items from our archives on the promotion of democracy and the protection of human rights worldwide.

Defending and Advancing Freedom: A Symposium
November 2005

Life, Liberty, Property
Richard Pipes – March 1999

Democracy for Everyone?
Peter L. Berger – September 1983

Human Rights and American Foreign Policy: A Symposium
November 1981

Dictatorships and Double Standards
Jeane J. Kirkpatrick – November 1979

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Bookshelf

• When I was an undergraduate music student, there were two pieces of New York-related classical-music trivia guaranteed to reduce the most unruly class to stunned (if short-lived) silence. One was that Leonard Bernstein was listed in the Manhattan phone book, and the other was that Lorenzo Da Ponte was buried in Queens. Bernstein has since acquired a new number, but Da Ponte’s bones can still be found in a common grave within the city limits of New York. From time to time this fact comes to the attention of a local newspaper editor, who thereupon commissions a feature story about the complicated life of the man who wrote the libretti for Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte.

I humbly confess that until last week, everything I knew about Lorenzo Da Ponte could easily have been crammed into the compass of a shortish feature story. Now, however, I know enough to fill a book. The book in question is Rodney Bolt’s The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s Poet, Casanova’s Friend, and Italian Opera’s Impresario in America, a fully sourced biography that is nonetheless intended for the edification of a non-scholarly audience. Bolt is a director-turned-travel writer who has a lively style, a good eye for detail, and a fabulous story to tell, all of which add up to an exceedingly readable book.

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• When I was an undergraduate music student, there were two pieces of New York-related classical-music trivia guaranteed to reduce the most unruly class to stunned (if short-lived) silence. One was that Leonard Bernstein was listed in the Manhattan phone book, and the other was that Lorenzo Da Ponte was buried in Queens. Bernstein has since acquired a new number, but Da Ponte’s bones can still be found in a common grave within the city limits of New York. From time to time this fact comes to the attention of a local newspaper editor, who thereupon commissions a feature story about the complicated life of the man who wrote the libretti for Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte.

I humbly confess that until last week, everything I knew about Lorenzo Da Ponte could easily have been crammed into the compass of a shortish feature story. Now, however, I know enough to fill a book. The book in question is Rodney Bolt’s The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s Poet, Casanova’s Friend, and Italian Opera’s Impresario in America, a fully sourced biography that is nonetheless intended for the edification of a non-scholarly audience. Bolt is a director-turned-travel writer who has a lively style, a good eye for detail, and a fabulous story to tell, all of which add up to an exceedingly readable book.

It would, I suppose, be all but impossible to write an unreadable book about Da Ponte. He was born a Jew, became a Roman Catholic priest, and married at 43, having hitherto conducted his private life along lines not unlike those of his old friend Giacomo Casanova, in evidence of which I offer these two deliciously characteristic sentences from his Memoirs:

A beautiful girl of sixteen (I should have preferred to love her only as a daughter, but . . . ) was living in the house with her mother, who took care of the family, and would come to my room at the sound of the bell. To tell the truth, I rang the bell quite often, especially at moments when I felt my inspiration flagging.

A famously charming fellow far more interested in writing poetry than performing his priestly duties, the Abbé Da Ponte was duly expelled from Venice and made his way to Vienna, where he somehow contrived to become the Emperor Joseph II’s house librettist. There he began his collaboration with Mozart, for whom he wrote what are now generally regarded as the first great opera libretti. He also continued his friendship with Casanova, who was, believe it or not, present at the first performance of Don Giovanni, a coincidence that is almost too good to be true.

Bolt writes very well about the Mozart-Da Ponte collaboration, especially the creation of Così, a worldly, startlingly modern comedy of disillusionment and acceptance whose emotional complexities are no more easily unraveled in 2007 than they were in 1790:

Mozart and Da Ponte created a work that would have critics arguing for centuries, berating it then rescuing it, damning it for its cynicism and triviality, lauding it for its complexity . . . Mozart’s music enriched Da Ponte’s libretto with shades and further ambiguities, softening crueler edges, adding lacquer-layers of meaning and affection, pointing moments of satire. As before, composer and poet delicately stitched the comic and the serious together, and made their mix even more complex by an interplay of real and faked emotions, histrionic bombast and moments of transporting beauty . . . Così fan tutte was Les Liaisons dangereuses with heart.

From Vienna Da Ponte made his way to London, then New York, where he became Columbia University’s first professor of Italian after having run a grocery store and a bookshop whose customers included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (Presumably he was the only person to have known Longfellow, Mozart, and Casanova.) All these adventures and many others like them are skillfully recounted in The Librettist of Venice, and if Rodney Bolt occasionally fails to make them especially plausible-sounding . . . well, sometimes real life is like that.

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Parisi’s Ignorance

Italy’s defense minister Arturo Parisi, interviewed last week on a morning show about Hizballah’s activity in southern Lebanon, dismissed any concern about its arms smuggling. “I am not aware [of any arms smuggling],” he said, “at least not to the extent that it requires a change of behavior by the UN.”

Parisi did recognize Lebanon’s difficult situation—given the ongoing battle between the Lebanese army and Fatah-al-Islam in the northern Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared, near the Syrian border, it would be hard to deny it. But he stated that the real trouble in the region stems from “actors coming from abroad and present in the Palestinian camps, whose links lead both to Sunnis and Shi’as”—and not, apparently, to Hizballah.

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Italy’s defense minister Arturo Parisi, interviewed last week on a morning show about Hizballah’s activity in southern Lebanon, dismissed any concern about its arms smuggling. “I am not aware [of any arms smuggling],” he said, “at least not to the extent that it requires a change of behavior by the UN.”

Parisi did recognize Lebanon’s difficult situation—given the ongoing battle between the Lebanese army and Fatah-al-Islam in the northern Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared, near the Syrian border, it would be hard to deny it. But he stated that the real trouble in the region stems from “actors coming from abroad and present in the Palestinian camps, whose links lead both to Sunnis and Shi’as”—and not, apparently, to Hizballah.

Parisi’s statement is baffling, in light of mounting evidence to the contrary. After all, he should know better. He is not merely the defense minister of Italy. Commanding the largest single contingent of troops in Lebanon and the UNIFIL forces in general, Parisi has access to privileged information about the situation on the ground. How, then, can one reconcile his recent statements with this one, from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon:

I have received information from Israel on arms trafficking. This information has been detailed and substantial, as outlined in my recent report. In addition, I have also received reports from other Member States detailing that illegal transfers of arms do occur. According to such reports, some weapons produced outside the region arrive via third countries and are brought clandestinely into Lebanon through the Syrian- Lebanese border. Such transfers are alleged to be taking place on a regular basis.

Ban wrote this in an interim report to the Security Council on the implementation of UNSCR 1559, which demands the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon. A news report by IRIN, the news network affiliated with the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), went further still. IRIN’s report offered specific details, interviews with foreign fighters, and eyewitness accounts of arms smuggling in Lebanon:

The two most significant reported violations of Resolution 1559’s demand for disarming militias over the past six months were weapons seized from members of the Syrian Socialist National Party (SSNP) in north Lebanon and a truck full of rockets and mortars seized in the eastern Bekaa Valley, which Hezbollah said was bound for its fighters.

Arms smuggling has also been reported in the international press and media. In a recent article in the French daily Le Figaro, Georges Malbrunot quoted a UN official close to the Secretary General saying that “This time the satellite photos that the Israelis showed us seem conclusive.” Malbrunot’s piece continues:

During their six months patrolling southern Lebanon its bloodhounds have discovered over a hundred bunkers, some of them cunningly established alongside UNIFIL positions, and a great many arms caches concealed under mosques and soccer pitches. To coordinate their attacks on Tzahal, militiamen have even established a telephone network independent of the Lebanese postal service! “How could the Beirut government have been unaware of all that?” one senior UNIFIL official asked; he suspects Hizballah of concealing weapons in the cellars of homes in southern Lebanon, to which blue helmets do not have access. “We could be unaware of many things,” this UN official complained.

Judging by his statements, one can only conclude that Parisi is also unaware of these developments, despite the wealth of information available even in the public domain. Unlike the UN Secretary General, who, at least, is “deeply worried” about the Lebanese crisis and the role played by Iran and Syria in arms smuggling, Parisi has dismissed any concern. And perhaps he genuinely doesn’t know.

But Parisi may simply be loath to embarrass his colleague Massimo D’Alema, Italy’s foreign minister, who is expected to visit Damascus soon. The purpose of this trip, as D’Alema reportedly claimed in a recent phone conversation with his Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni, is “to lecture” the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Given the evidence (and D’Alema’s foreign policy record), it’s tempting to assume he will pretend that all is business as usual—as Parisi did last week in front of the cameras.

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