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Why Would the FBI Hire Marwan Barghouti’s Lawyer?

The New York Times delves into the details of the recent case of an Israeli-American of dual citizenship, Shamai Leibowitz, who was hired by the FBI to listen in on the Israeli embassy. Leibowitz, once a controversial pro-Palestinian lawyer in Israel before moving to the U.S., then leaked secret information on Israel to a vicious left-wing critic of the Jewish state. While there is nothing particularly surprising about the agent’s assignment–as Omri wrote this morning, the U.S. routinely monitors the communications of foreign embassies–the report leaves me with several questions, such as: Why on earth was a lawyer who represented Marwan Barghouti and compared him to Moses hired by the FBI to monitor Israeli communication?

“According to some lawyers, he should be called a terrorist, but according to Exodus, he is a freedom fighter,” Leibowitz said during Barghouti’s trial in 2002. Barghouti had been charged–and he would be convicted–of murdering two dozen Israelis in a terrorist attack. Barghouti has always been a hero to Palestinians and to far-left activists like Leibowitz and the blogger he leaked to, Richard Silverstein. Obviously, the U.S. has no desire to see the information they glean from monitoring embassy activities leaked to journalists (hence why Leibowitz is being put behind bars). But that makes the decision to hire Leibowitz in the first place quite puzzling, and raises other questions.

First among those questions is: Wouldn’t Leibowitz’s very public defense of a famous terrorist turn up in any basic background check? As Barghouti’s lawyer, Leibowitz is already in a fairly gray area of American law. As Shayana Kadidal, of the Guantánamo Global Justice Initiative at the Center for Constitutional Rights, has pointed out, American Supreme Court justices are still figuring out for themselves just how much representation someone can give a known terrorist without running afoul of the law. (Elena Kagan, the latest liberal member to join the court, says you cannot, for example, teach a terrorist how to file an amicus brief.)

Though it is doubtful Leibowitz violated any laws in representing Barghouti, the latter was a leader of the Al Aksa Martyrs’ Brigades, a group designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department about a decade ago. Does Leibowitz’s support for Barghouti not at least disqualify him from a job with the FBI in which he would have access to highly classified intelligence? Further, could the FBI be sure it could trust Leibowitz’s translations, which is his primary job?

Hiring Leibowitz was clearly a mistake from the beginning, and the mess he made was probably inevitable. We should be glad he didn’t do more damage to U.S. intelligence or the relationship between the two countries before he was caught.



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