Local News

An innocent man

July 24, 2013
Four years after the government dropped its espionage case against him and a fellow ex-AIPAC employee, Keith Weissman is still trying to put the pieces of his life back together.
By David Holzel
Senior Writer

It could have been worse.

After Keith Weissman was trapped in a Justice Department sting in 2004, he lost his job as an analyst at AIPAC, lost his livelihood, lost the pleasures afforded by access to people of influence, lost the horizon of a future. But as a part of a Washington power couple — his wife, Deborah Heilizer, worked as a securities litigation lawyer — Weissman’s sudden fall didn’t land his family on the street.

Yet there was no hiding what had happened and the inevitable shame that comes from being suspected of wrongdoing. “I have a family. Three kids,” he says. “They’re smart kids. They read the newspaper.”

And despite the fact that the government dropped its espionage case against Weissman and fellow AIPAC employee Steven J. Rosen in 2009 — the two men were indicted for receiving classified information and leaking it to the media and an Israeli diplomat — the losses continue to add up.

In April, Heilizer died of pancreatic cancer. Now Weissman, who spent the past year caring for her, is facing the future with many ambitions but unclear prospects. If Weissman’s second act is about to begin, even he is unsure of which stage it will be on.

Sitting over coffee in a Bethesda restaurant, he says he’d like to teach history in a high school. His academic training prepared him to be a professor — his doctoral dissertation was on 13th-century Iraq — and he taught college classes for nine years in Chicago.

His 12 years at AIPAC introduced him to the nonprofit world, to think tanks and lobbying. He can see himself working for a human rights outfit or in an organization on the “left side of the Jewish community.”

He wonders how much his notoriety scares away potential employers. Although he was never tried or convicted of any crime — “Most likely the case was dismissed on its merits — like, we were innocent,” he says, can the average hiring manager separate that fact from the urge to stay away from trouble? A Google search for “Keith Weissman” produces 863,000 results. A search for “Keith Weissman, scandal” yields 904,000.

Because of Weissman’s leftish tilt and pro-Palestinian sympathies, his friends were surprised when he first went to work for AIPAC in 1993. Immersed in the Persian and Arabic languages and a specialist in medieval Muslim history, he also knew more about the Palestinian cause than the Israeli one.

The case for Israel was one of the lessons he learned while at AIPAC. His own heritage was another.

“I didn’t really learn about Judaism until then,” he says.

 

‘The end of the Arab-Israeli conflict’
His own Jewish upbringing in suburban Scarsdale, N.Y., was cultural and proletarian. “My family was Communist on both sides,” he says.
They were adherents of what’s now thought of as New York Judaism — Eastern European food, a little Jewish culture, the holidays, a bar mitzvah for Keith.

“My grandfather was a Yiddish poet on the Lower East Side before he learned English. Then he became a real estate mogul and a Republican,” he says and chuckles. “That’s OK. Everybody goes through that.”

Weissman’s coursework at the University of Chicago required that he learn four languages. He began with Persian and went to Iran in 1978. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi had less than a year left on the throne before the Iranian revolution swept him into exile; in November 1979, Islamic militants took 52 Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

“When I came home [from Iran], I realized it probably would be a while before I’d be back.”
So Weissman turned to Arabic. He studied the language at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and spent 1981 at the American University in Cairo.

He went to work for AIPAC in 1993, just as the endless hostility between Arabs and Jews finally seemed to be turning a corner.

“I started at AIPAC the week of the Oslo Accords” — the interim peace agreement between Yitzhak Rabin’s Israel and Yasser Arafat’s PLO. They were heady times for Weissman and the pro-Israel lobby. “We were implementing the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

That optimism was fleeting. Arafat proved to be an unreliable peace partner and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza returned to business as usual. Weissman, uncomfortable defending the occupation as an AIPAC lobbyist, asked to be reassigned, and in 1995 he became an Iran analyst. His work included Central Asia and Turkey and the development of oil and gas in the Caspian Sea.

As long as he could stay away from the languishing peace process, Weissman was happy at AIPAC, even as it shifted to the right.

“I never felt I had to hide anything when I was there,” he says. “I didn’t have to write justifications for Israel’s home demolitions.”

 

The sting
Lawrence A. Franklin was an Iran expert at the Defense Department. In August 2004, he met Weissman at a shopping mall in suburban Washington. It was a routine chat between two men sharing similar areas of expertise. During their conversation, Franklin revealed to Weissman that Iran was targeting the U.S. and Israel in Iraq.

Alarmed, Weissman told Rosen, who was AIPAC’s policy director. Together they informed journalists, their AIPAC colleagues, Israeli diplomats, and they tried to contact the Bush White House.

But Franklin’s information was false. He was working for the FBI in an investigation of AIPAC. Weissman and Rosen were caught in a sting. The lobby fired the two men in April 2005. And that October, the government indicted them for violating the 1917 Espionage Act.

“I don’t have a tremendous amount of bitterness toward AIPAC,” Weissman says now. “The overwhelming majority of staff had nothing to do with the case. I’m not so sure I wouldn’t have fired me, too.”

Weissman’s life became the stuff of a thriller. He and Heilizer had to go outside their house to speak privately. Their movements were tracked. And when Weissman gave his daughter driving lessons, there was a tail on them. He entertains the idea that the unrelenting stress contributed to Heilizer’s pancreatic cancer.

There was a rumor a few years back that Weissman was going to write a tell-all book about the whole mess. “I was never sure I wanted to write a book,” he says. “I had the idea for about 15 minutes.”

Weissman, who loves spy thrillers, says a fictional account might be easier to pull off. “It would solve the problem of what I could or could not say. And it would make it more interesting than it really was.”

For a while he was researching the life of Clyde McPhatter, lead singer of the 1950s group the Drifters, to write a biography. “He was one of the only black musicians in the civil rights movement,” Weissman says.

But the paper trail was thin, and it was tough finding people still alive who knew McPhatter, he says. So he dropped the idea.

R&B was the music of his youth, but his mature tastes are eclectic, “jazz, world music, American rock and roll. I never liked Elton John and Billy Joel, but that’s pretty much it.”

Weissman doesn’t play an instrument, but he sang in high school bands. In the spring of 1970, he worked as a roadie for the Grateful Dead as the band toured the East Coast. And as his high school graduation approached, he was given a chance to join the crew of the J. Geils Band, the hard-rocking R&B revivalists.

“I had to decide — college or rock and roll,” Weissman says.

He made the right choice — the one that led to his life. That life has taken its own strange, sad turns, of course.

He considers what unfolded after the FBI sting. “The fact is it took five years out of our lives,” he says. “You have to postpone your life. That was the worst part.”

dholzel@washingtonjewishweek.com  Twitter: @davidholzel

1Comments
  1. dancingcat wrote:

    How can he be innocent? He passed U.S. info to the Israeli government.
    What’s innocent about that? So the info was false. But a lot of espionage info is false – the analysts are supposed to sort it out. It’s the *act* of passing secret info to a foreign government

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