Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) returned to Washington this week after successfully facilitating the release of a former intern accused of spying on Egypt for Israel.
Ilan Grapel, a 28-year-old Emory University law student who interned in Ackerman’s New York district office in the summer of 2002, was detained in Egypt in mid-June amid allegations of inciting civil discontent.
Ackerman received news of the arrest soon thereafter from Grapel’s mother, Irene, a constituent. The congressman said the student was simply a tourist in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I could not conceive of this kid being a spy,” he told The Hill.
“The first thing I did was speak with the [Egyptian] ambassador. I assured him that I did not believe the young man was involved in anything nefarious.”
Ackerman described his former intern, who speaks Hebrew and Arabic and has served in the Israeli army, as a “perfect candidate” for Egyptians to detain.
Grapel “met their needs in the sense that they had claimed that outside forces are always responsible for civil discontent and social unrest,” he said.
“The Egyptian press was of course making the most of it. They caught an Israeli spy fomenting trouble and firebombing things,” Ackerman added. “They had witnesses of him firebombing a police station on days when he hadn’t left Atlanta.”
During a June meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ackerman was given further assurances that Grapel was not an agent acting on behalf of the Israeli government.
“He reassured me that [Grapel] was not a spy, and also told me he would be willing to do anything and everything to secure his release,” Ackerman said.
The congressman also reached out to top members of the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on the matter.
The top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, Ackerman has had a longstanding relationship with Egyptian officials, including Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and Maj. Gen. Mohamed El-Assar.
“I wasn’t an unknown factor to them,” he said, adding that this relationship likely helped expedite Grapel’s release.
Many of Grapel’s friends and colleagues, as well as several organizations, reached out to Ackerman to aid the cause, but the lawmaker was determined to keep the matter under wraps.
“My relationship with the Egyptians was so that I understood … the last thing you want to do with these guys is embarrass them. They will lock in,” he said.
Outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reportedly called Tantawi to apply pressure regarding Grapel’s release, with little success.
Even Ackerman’s congressional colleagues were kept in the dark.
“Nobody knew, except at the end when I was going to go over, I had asked to see if I could travel,” he said. “I was trying to get permission to go over there and get him released. So the leadership knew I was going; they didn’t approve, so I just went on my own.
“We were in session; Democrats can’t travel without Republicans,” Ackerman said of the reason given for the request denial. “If this ain’t official business, I don’t know what is.”
As months passed with Grapel in solitary confinement, Egyptian authorities continued to reinstitute 45-day investigation periods to prolong officially charging the American.
Abbe Lowell, a Washington attorney with Chadbourne & Parke, had been reached by the Grapels to launch a defense for their detained son.
Lowell, a two-time counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives and chief minority counsel during impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, took the case pro bono.
“The decision was automatic,” he said of aiding the Grapels. “I have three kids. If one of my kids was in a jam like Ilan was, I would want and expect anyone who was asked to help as much as they could.”
Part of Lowell’s strategy was to avoid Egypt formally charging Grapel.
“If Egyptian authorities became locked into a theory, it would be harder to unwind that clock,” he said. “We were able to show his whereabouts and timeline and when he came and left, and were able to show he did not do what he was accused of doing.”
As Lowell’s firm and an Egyptian attorney worked to prove Grapel’s innocence, Ackerman continued discussions with Egyptian leaders to come to a resolution.
“I was saying, ‘I’ve really got to get this kid home. He’s not a spy,’” Ackerman said of the talks. “I’ve got to make his mother happy. [El-Assar’s] response to that was, ‘We want to make a lot of mothers happy.’
“To me, that said, ‘We’ve got a deal cooking.’”
The deal between Egyptian authorities and Israel turned out to be Grapel’s release in exchange for 25 low-level criminals, including smugglers and border-crossers incarcerated in Israel.
When asked if he felt any frustration at such a deal and whether it sets a dangerous precedent, Ackerman said that such trades have “been done throughout history.”
“That goes on all the time,” he added. “It’s a very noble notion to redeem hostages in one way or another. And to get back something you want, you have to pay a price.”
The deal was also a bargain compared with one struck in mid-October that led Israel to release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a soldier, Sgt. Gilad Shalit, held by the terrorist group Hamas for more than five years.
Ackerman said that deal brokered by Egypt also helped advance Grapel’s release.
El-Assar personally notified the congressman of the Grapel deal last week. Ackerman immediately booked travel to Israel with a member of his staff to meet with his former intern.
Grapel’s mother also made the trip prior to the release date of Oct. 27, when Grapel was transported from Egypt to Israel.
“She and I and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro stood on the tarmac waiting for this little unmarked plane to land,” Ackerman recalled. Grapel “embraced his mother … and then he came over and gave me a big hug.”
For Lowell, the moment to celebrate didn’t come until after Grapel was safely in the air on his way back to the United States.
“It was a long exit … so fragile, so tenuous,” he said. “At any given moment, what was happening on the streets of Cairo could have a profound effect on everyone’s efforts to get this done.”
Lowell was quick to praise the efforts of the U.S. State Department in assisting in Grapel’s release. He also commended Ackerman and his staff for their involvement.
“He understood immediately the complexity and strategy,” Lowell said. “They really served the function that a U.S. congressman can and is supposed to serve.”
Grapel himself is not yet available for interviews. Both Ackerman and Lowell acknowledged it would take time for the former intern to deal with the experience, particularly four months spent in solitary confinement.
“It could have gone wrong,” Lowell added. “It probably hasn’t registered how lucky, in some ways, he is.”