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Hall of Mirrors

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It is Franklin's July 2004 conversation with Weissman that seems to be the primary focus of the government's case. According to a May 17 JTA report by Ron Kampeas and Matthew Berger:

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Laura Rozen
Laura Rozen reports on national security and foreign policy from Washington, DC, for The American Prospect, The Nation...

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Franklin allegedly warned Weissman that Iranian agents in predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq planned to kidnap, torture and kill American and Israeli agents in the region.... Weissman immediately informed Rosen and the information was relayed to the White House, sources close to the defense said.

    Rosen and Weissman then called Naor Gilon, who heads the political desk at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, and Glenn Kessler, the State Department correspondent for the Washington Post, the sources said.

It is on the basis of Rosen and Weissman's actions after being set up by the FBI and Franklin that the FBI apparently intends to pursue its case against the two former AIPAC officials. Why is this problematic? After all, it's hard to argue that Franklin was acting within the normal parameters of his work. Indeed, as a two-decade veteran of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Franklin certainly knew the rules about leaking classified information and keeping classified documents at home. If convicted on the charges he currently faces, he could serve up to ten years in jail. (Franklin's attorney, John Richards, has been cited in numerous press reports as saying his client intends to plead innocent.)

It's the AIPAC part of the case that is more troubling. While it's no secret that some people in town, particularly those who think Washington Middle East policy shows undue favoritism to Israel, have long thought the lobbying group to be too powerful and wouldn't mind seeing it taken down a peg, it's hard to see why the government would pursue charges in this case, which doesn't appear to be particularly strong or clear-cut, at least in terms of showing anything like a pattern of AIPAC officials serving as a vehicle for passing classified US information to the Israelis. Assuming the government does not have more evidence against the officials than the interaction with Franklin, it's hard to see why the FBI would risk cries of anti-Israel bias in a case with so many mitigating circumstances. Those include the fact that, so far, there's no evidence the AIPAC officials ever actively solicited the information from Franklin, nor that they ever received actual classified documents from him. A second mitigating factor for the defense could be that, according to reports in the JTA and the Jerusalem Post, the substance of the planted information concerned what the AIPAC officials thought to be an immediate threat to Israeli and American lives in northern Iraq--in other words, an exceptional case, in which they might have felt morally obliged to notify the embassy of the citizens of an allied country they thought to be in imminent danger. Finally, it appears the AIPAC officials first went not to the Israelis with the information but to a senior US official who would appear to be authorized to see it: the National Security Council's senior Middle East adviser, Elliott Abrams. It's hard to argue that it's the normal practice of spies to take the classified information they receive to a senior US official.

But all of those are just mitigating factors, says former FBI attorney Harvey Rishikoff. "The case turns on whether they knew the information they were receiving was improperly being provided," Rishikoff told The Nation. "Once you receive that classified information that you know was improperly provided, the next question is, what do you do with that information? You have a variety of things you can do. You can tell the federal government there has been a breach of security. You can use the information to pass on to a foreign power. You can approach government officials to enter in a dialogue based on the new information you receive." Since the AIPAC officials seem to have proceeded with the latter two options, the question becomes, What is the appropriate action for the government to take? Rishikoff argues that the goal of the government's case may be not so much the targeting of AIPAC but a warning to those who might see leaking to the lobby group as perhaps not officially allowed but unofficially tolerated. "If I am the prosecutor, what I really want to prosecute is not AIPAC," says Rishikoff. "I want to start prosecuting anyone who thinks they can give information to AIPAC. I want to use this as a test case, to stop people feeling the US has a special relationship with this group."

Indeed, the special relationship between the US executive branch and AIPAC was the triumph of twenty years of work by former AIPAC policy director Rosen, who looks set to become a victim of it. "Rosen invented executive branch lobbying," says one source familiar with Rosen who asked to speak on background. "The tyranny of fear that AIPAC has in this town was built by Steve Rosen. AIPAC would never have gotten in trouble if it had stuck to working the halls of Congress. They fact is, Hill staffers don't know very much that's not open. When you start wandering around the Pentagon and State Department, that is not traditional lobbying. Steve Rosen sold that to AIPAC when he came [to the organization] in 1982." And not just targeting the Pentagon and State, but apparently the White House itself. Rosen and Weissman's consultation with the NSC's Abrams would reflect that unusual power dynamic, which may fall outside the focus of the FBI's criminal jurisdiction but which adds to the case's potentially radioactive political fallout.

The case is now poised to take an even more unfortunate twist. News reports indicate that the FBI hopes to begin questioning journalists as witnesses, setting up an echo of the Valerie Plame leak case, in which an investigation into government malfeasance turned into an excuse to harass journalists. At this point, the FBI will move forward on the Franklin case, with indictments of the former AIPAC officials likely to follow. In the process, any efforts of Franklin and his Pentagon colleagues to pursue unconventional channels, including secret meetings with the arms dealer Ghorbanifar, to agitate for tougher White House action on Iranian activities in Iraq--and indeed the larger policy goal of getting the White House to sign off on a plan to destabilize Tehran--may be lost in the shuffle. (In this regard, it's curious that the promised Senate Intelligence Committee investigation of the Ghorbanifar meeting and the Administration's faulty pre-Iraq War intelligence, including an investigation of the activities of the Pentagon office of Douglas Feith, seems to have fallen by the wayside.)

It's also worth noting that, even though the FBI's original interest seems to have centered on AIPAC, the organization has, so far at least, emerged from the investigation with just a few bruises. The lobby group's massive annual policy conference takes place this weekend, May 22-24, and all the usual Washington power brokers, including perhaps half of Congress, will be in attendance. Slated to address the event are Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other political heavyweights from Washington and Tel Aviv. The central thrust of the AIPAC conference, as in past years, will be in heightening its elite American audience's perception of the Iranian nuclear threat--in other words, just the nexus of issues that concerned players such as Franklin and the dismissed AIPAC officials. Their fate could be a mere wrinkle in a larger show that must go on.

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