Steven Rosen is "pro-Israel" writer and media pundit who is a program director at the Middle East Forum (MEF), a neoconservative think tank led by Daniel Pipes. A longtime former lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Rosen was indicted by the Justice Department in 2005 as part of a high-profile federal investigation into the alleged passing of sensitive U.S. information to Israel. Rosen again drew widespread attention in early 2009 for his role in helping spearhead the effort to overturn the appointment of former Ambassador Charles Freeman, an outspoken critic of some Israeli policies, to a top intelligence post in the Barack Obama administration.
Rosen has a reputation as "pro-Israel" bulldog inside the Beltway. "The Washington Post noted that 'Rosen helped pioneer executive-branch lobbying, a style of advocacy that was not widespread when he began it in the mid-1980s, but is now a routine complement to the more traditional lobbying of Congress,'" boasted a 2009 MEF press release announcing Rosen's hiring. "The New York Times," it continued, "called him one of AIPAC's 'most influential employees, with wide-ranging contacts within the Bush administration and overseas.' National Public Radio called him 'a larger-than-life figure' who 'helped shape AIPAC into one of the most powerful lobby groups in the country.' According to a 2005 Ha'aretz article, 'In the eyes of many, he is AIPAC itself.'"
Writings and Views
Since joining MEF, Rosen has penned a number of articles castigating the Obama administration's policies toward Israel and attacking Palestinians. He has published in neoconservative outlets like Commentary magazine as well as mainstream journals such as Foreign Policy. In his writings, Rosen frequently asserts that Iran is actively developing a nuclear weapon (a view not shared by the U.S. intelligence community), blames the impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" on Palestinian intransigence, and calls for unflinching U.S. support for the Israeli government. Rosen also insists on an interventionist U.S. role in the Middle East and elsewhere. "Without a strong United States," he wrote in 2013, "the world of our children will descend into a very dark void, because after America there is no one else waiting in line to assume leadership except these forces of evil and chaos."
Although he was fired from AIPAC in 2005—and subsequently fought a highly public legal battle with the outfit over the circumstances of his termination—Rosen continues to write favorably about the organization and advocates its positions. As the Obama administration pressed for congressional authorization to strike Syria in 2013, for example, Rosen observed that the impending vote "put the pro-Israel camp just where it did not want to be: openly advocating American military involvement in the volatile Middle East." Nonetheless, Rosen wrote, "AIPAC has weighed in fully in support of the president's call for intervention." Rosen himself endorsed a strike as a means to damage the Syrian regime's military capabilities, which he said "would be a benefit to Israel and the region—no matter who emerges victorious there."
Rosen has also gotten involved in disputes within the "pro-Israel" community concerning Israeli policies in the Middle East and the nature of Washington's relationship with Tel Aviv. Israel's critics, Rosen wrote in 2012, "portray Israel as a strategic liability rather than an asset—a trigger-happy country that exaggerates the Iranian threat and is plotting the annexation of the West Bank at the expense of the Palestinians." Rosen specifically called out "author Peter Beinart and J Street PresidentJeremy Ben-Ami"—both of whom have criticized Israel's settlement policies and hawkish line on Iran—for "taking ideas from the far left of the Israeli political spectrum and transforming them into mainstream beliefs of the Democratic Party." Although Rosen expressed relief that "AIPAC is still producing record-breaking bipartisan majorities on pro-Israel legislation," he worried that "A change is taking place under the surface inside the Democratic Party, and it is bound to burst out into the open at key moments down the road."
A former professor who taught international relations and political science at a number of universities and served as an associate director of the RAND Corporation, Rosen joined AIPAC in the early 1980s. As the head of foreign policy issues at the organization, Rosen was widely credited with having helped turn AIPAC into one of the most powerful lobbying firms in Washington, in part by pushing the idea that instead of lobbying only Congress, AIPAC should also target high-level executive branch officials.
Reported a 2005 New Yorker expose, "Rosen arrived [at AIPAC] brandishing a new idea: that the organization could influence the outcome of policy disputes within the executive branch—in particular, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the National Security Council. Rosen began to court officials. He traded in gossip and speculation, and his reports to AIPAC's leaders helped them track currents in Middle East policymaking before those currents coalesced into executive orders. Rosen also used his contacts to carry AIPAC's agenda to the White House. An early success came in 1983, when he helped lobby for a strategic cooperation agreement between Israel and the United States, which was signed over the objections of Caspar Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense, and which led to a new level of intelligence sharing and military sales."
Rosen remained at AIPAC—where the focus of much of his work was on pushing the purported threat from Iran and advocating a hard line on Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations—until 2005, when he was fired in connection to his alleged role in passing U.S. government secrets to Israel (see "Espionage Indictment" below).
In March 2009, Rosen took up a post at the Middle East Forum, which was founded by the hardline neoconservative writer Daniel Pipes. At MEF, Rosen directs the Washington Project, which lobbies policymakers directly and works to place op-eds in outlets like the Washington Post. Rosen previously ran the group's "Obama Mideast Monitor" blog, a perch he used to highlight news on various pet issues, including the promotion of Dennis Ross to a high-level State Department post in the Obama administration and the effort to overturn the appointment of Charles Freeman as head of the National Intelligence Council.
In an email to readers of his personal newsletter, Pipes celebrated Rosen's role in overturning Freeman's appointment, writing, "What you may not know is that Steven J. Rosen of the Middle East Forum was the person who first brought attention to the problematic nature of Freeman's appointment, in a February 19 blog titled 'Alarming appointment at the CIA.' Within hours, the word was out; and three weeks later Freeman has conceded defeat. Only someone with Steve's stature and credibility could have made this happen."
In the blog entry cited by Pipes, Rosen wrote, "Freeman is a strident critic of Israel, and a textbook case of the old-line Arabism that afflicted American diplomacy at the time the state of Israel was born. His views of the region are what you would expect in the Saudi foreign ministry, with which he maintains an extremely close relationship, not the top CIA position for analytic products going to the President of the United States."
Rosen's allegations about Freeman's "Arabist" bias were soundly rejected by a number of former government officials, including seven former intelligence officers who wrote in a letter to Admiral Dennis Blair, the Obama administration's director of national intelligence, that the attacks on Freeman were "unprecedented in their vehemence, scope, and target" and were undertaken by "pundits and public figures ... [who are] aghast at the appointment of a senior intelligence official able to take a more balanced view of the Arab-Israel issue."
Discussing the role that Rosen and similar-minded pundits played in attacking the Freeman appointment, Harvard University's Stephen Walt wrote in his blog for Foreign Policy magazine, "As soon as [Freeman's] appointment was announced, a bevy of allegedly 'pro-Israel' pundits leapt to attack it, in what The Nation's Robert Dreyfuss called a 'thunderous, coordinated assault.' Freeman's critics were the usual suspects: Jonathan Chait of the New Republic, Michael Goldfarb at the Weekly Standard, Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, Gabriel Schoenfeld (writing on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal), Jonah Goldberg of National Review, Marty Peretz on his New Republic blog, and former AIPAC official Steve Rosen (yes, the same guy who is now on trial for passing classified U.S. government information to Israel).… What unites this narrow band of critics is only one thing: Freeman has dared to utter some rather mild public criticisms of Israeli policy. That's the litmus test that [they] want to apply to all public servants: thou shalt not criticize Israeli policy nor question America's 'special relationship' with Israel."
In 2005, Rosen became the target of a federal investigation into the alleged passing of secrets to Israel. In May of that year, the FBI arrested Lawrence Franklin, a Pentagon analyst, for sharing information about possible attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq with Rosen and Keith Weissman, both then with AIPAC,during an FBI-monitored lunch in June 2003. Franklin was allegedly upset that his hardline stance on Iran was being overlooked, and he hoped AIPAC would be able to attract attention to his views. According to the New York Times, supporters of an "influential circle in the Pentagon" blamed the FBI's investigation on "the continuing struggle inside the administration over intelligence."
Several months after Franklin's arrest, the Department of Justice issued an indictment against Rosen and Weissman. According to the indictment, the pair passed the information Franklin gave them to a journalist and an Israeli diplomat, leading to charges that they had conspired to violate the 1917 Espionage Act.
Franklin pleaded guilty to his charges and was sentenced to 12.5 years in prison, but charges against Rosen and Weissman were dropped in May 2009 after a series of rulings by the presiding judge in the case appeared to hamper the government's case. In an August 10, 2006 ruling, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III argued that for the government to prove its case against Rosen and Weissman, it must demonstrate that the two men disclosed national defense information "closely held by the government" and that each "had bad faith purpose" in passing it to others, knowing that it "could be potentially damaging to the United States" or "useful to an enemy of the United States."
In November 2007, Judge Ellis ordered a number of then-government officials to testify on behalf of Rosen and Weissman, who according to the Washington Post argued that the "officials could help clear them because they provided the former lobbyists with sensitive information similar to what they were charged for." Among those targeted for subpoenas were then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, then-national security adviser Steven J. Hadley, former Defense Department officials Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, and Richard Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state.
In his ruling the judge said, "Defendants claim that testimony from these current and former officials will tend to show that the [acts cited in the indictment] reflect nothing more than the well-established official Washington practice of engaging in 'back channel' communication."
In March 2009, with the espionage case still pending, Rosen filed a defamation lawsuit against his former employer, AIPAC, because of statements made by one of the lobbying group's spokespersons about why Rosen and Weissman were fired, which occurred shortly after Rosen was indicted in 2005. The spokesperson, Patrick Dorton, said at the time that the two lobbyists were fired because their actions "did not comport with standards that AIPAC expects of all its employees."
According to the Jewish news service JTA, at the heart of the civil suit, which sought $21 million in damages, was Rosen's claim that "his actions comported with AIPAC practices, and that he provided his superiors with regular briefings about his efforts to gather information from government officials." Rosen's complaint argued that "In order to be effective, organizations engaged in advocacy in the field of foreign policy need to have earlier and more detailed information about policy developments inside the government and diplomatic issues with other countries than is normally available to or needed by the wider public. Agencies of the government sometimes choose to provide such additional information about policy and diplomatic issues to these outside interest groups in order to win support for what they are doing among important domestic constituencies and to send messages to select target audiences." The suit was eventually dismissed.