Shamai Leibowitz sentenced for leaking FBI secret

Shamai Leibowitz sentenced for leaking FBI secret

WASHINGTON — Those who know Shamai Leibowitz of Silver Spring, Md. describe him as a doting father, enchanting Torah reader and, above all, a trusted member of the community.
But a recently revealed other side to Leibowitz’s life has some reacting with disbelief and shock.
Last week, Leibowitz, 39, the Shabbat Torah reader at Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim, a Conservative synagogue in Silver Spring, was sentenced to 20 months in prison for leaking classified government documents to a blogger last year while serving as a linguist for the FBI.
The episode has sent the family into a Kafkaesque nightmare full of legal, financial and familial hardships, according to Leibowitz’s wife, Hagit, who penned a missive last month to U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr., asking for a lenient jail sentence.
“There are no words to describe the trials and tribulations that I went through in the past year,” wrote the Judaics and Hebrew teacher at the Hebrew Day Institute in Rockville. “Since the investigation began, my life has been turned upside down and my family has been in constant upheaval.”
While most of those contacted were reticent to speak publicly, citing the sensitive nature of the case, the synagogue’s rabbi, Reuben Landman, said he was surprised by how the court proceedings played out.
Details surrounding the case are murky, as federal prosecutors have refused to reveal exactly what information was contained in the leaked documents or the identity of the blogger who received them.
The judge, in a peculiar twist, revealed in court last week that even he hadn’t been privy to many details, including the nature of the disclosed information and its national security impact.
“The court is in the dark,” Williams, who declined comment for this article, said at the sentencing hearing last week, according to an article by Politico. “I’m not a part and parcel of the intricacies of [the alleged national security threat] … I don’t know what was divulged, other than some documents.”
Observers say they find this admission slightly odd, if not flat-out disturbing.
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the Orthodox Ohev Shalom-The National Synagogue in Washington described Leibowitz, a native Israeli who moved to the area in 2004, as “a person of deep integrity.”
Herzfeld went on to lament the manner in which both the prosecution and court handled the case.
“I don’t think we have anywhere near the whole story in this case,” Herzfeld said, pointing to what he sees as “troubling trend” in the way Jews have been treated by the American justice system. “Just because [Leibowitz] pled guilty doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be concerned about in this matter.”
Others expressed concern about whether the punishment fits the crime.
According to Politico, Leibowitz’s 20-month sentence is among the harshest ever doled out to a government employee accused of leaking classified information to a reporter.
“I’m shocked,” said Rabbi Herzel Kranz of the Orthodox Silver Spring Jewish Center, explaining that the news reports he has read leave “very serious questions to be asked.”
“This is not the America I know,” Kranz said. “How can you be sentenced for a crime when the judge doesn’t know what the crime is?”
In January, Landman wrote to Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Dunne, a prosecutor in the case, to ask for compassion. He argued that Leibowitz already has suffered much “public humiliation” and that his family has been “ruined financially” by soaring legal fees.
The rabbi’s plea as well as those of some 10 community members who wrote the court on Leibowitz’s behalf seem to have helped somewhat, as Williams decided to defer Leibowitz’s sentence for slightly more than 60 days so that the family can prepare for his departure, according to Landman. He noted that both the judge and government decided to waive all financial penalties that could have been leveled in the case.
Members of Leibowitz’s synagogue and the wider Jewish community have on several occasions provided the Leibowitz family with financial assistance for mounting legal bills. In addition, the shul has allowed the family temporarily to live free of charge in a shul-owned guest house located near the synagogue, according to a source familiar with the synagogue’s inner workings.
For his part, Leibowitz is remaining mum about the genesis of his crimes, according to Landman, who described his congregant as “a very caring person, [and] a person of conscience.”
Leibowitz did not respond to a request for comment last week, but he did express regret for his actions in a May 21 letter to the judge. He also sought to explain why he misguidedly chose to become a media informant.
Leibowitz’s lawyer, Robert Bonsib, also declined to elaborate on the case, saying, “It’s not appropriate to comment except for what was said in open court.”
“While working at the FBI, I came across information that troubled me very much and caused me to make a bad decision,” Leibowitz wrote. “I allowed my idealism and misguided patriotism to get ahead of me… I made a mistake but only because I believed it was in the best interests of the American people.”
One reason the case may have garnered so much attention, Landman noted, is likely because Leibowitz comes from a relatively famous family. His grandfather, Yeshayahu, was an Israeli philosopher and scientist known mostly for his controversial views on halachah, Jewish law, and politics. The family’s prominence may be “one of the factors that played a role in the government’s decision” to pursue the case against Leibowitz, Landman said, explaining that a high-profile case can act as a deterrent to other would-be leakers.
No stranger to expressing himself publicly, Leibowitz has maintained a personal blog, “Pursuing Justice,” since 2007. On it, he riffs freely about politics, the law, religion and other topics.
In one posting from May 25, Leibowitz writes about the legal protections afforded to federal whistleblowers.
The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998 “is critical to preventing abuses of power in the intelligence community and upholding the rules of law,” wrote Leibowitz, who, among other posts, formerly served as a fellow for the New Israel Fund. “Because intelligence agencies operate in the dark and their activities are classified, there is danger that they will abuse the broad powers given to them and violate the constitution.”
Leibowitz also raised some eyebrows in 2002, when he compared convicted Palestinian terrorist Marwan Barghouti to Moses; Leibowitz was a member of Barghouti’s defense team.
“According to some lawyers, he should be called a terrorist, but according to Exodus, he is a freedom fighter,” Leibowitz said, according to a October 2002 report by The New York Times.
Sources indicate that his participation in that case caused some in the local Orthodox community to shun him.
His own synagogue, however, seems to have nothing but praise and support for the his family.
“There’s a lot of sympathy for the family,” said J. Merle Shulman, an 80-year-old congregant who characterized the whole situation as “absolutely shocking.”