Did Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister of Israel, run a covert program with operatives in high-level US government positions to influence the Bush Administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq? The FBI wants to know.
That’s the story behind the latest Washington spy scandal, involving Israel, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and a mid-level civilian Pentagon employee allegedly caught red-handed trying to deliver US secrets to the Israelis.
It’s not a routine spy case. According to sources familiar with the investigation, the FBI is looking at a group of neoconservatives who have occupied senior posts at the White House, the Pentagon and in Vice President Cheney’s office. It’s not that they are supporters of Israel–no crime there–but that some of them might be conspirators in a clandestine operation launched by Sharon’s Likud Party. They make up the very network of ideologues–from civilians at the Defense Department to fellow travelers at right-wing think tanks–who have been accused of pushing George W. Bush into war. The point of the probe, sources believe, is not to examine the push to war but rather to ascertain whether Sharon recruited or helped place in office people who knowingly, and secretly, worked with him to affect the direction of US policy in the Middle East. The most likely targets of the inquiry are Douglas Feith, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and Harold Rhode of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment.
It’s an explosive inquiry and one that raises the most sensitive hackles, since it involves the possibility that US officials (most, but not all, Jews) are working on Sharon’s behalf. They include Feith and a handful of other officials, including those in the inner circle of his policy office who formed the core of the Office of Special Plans (OSP). The probe faces stiff political resistance. Yet it may have legs.
The investigation burst into the news in late August when CBS News reported that the FBI had caught a Feith staffer, later identified as Larry Franklin, trying to deliver what turned out to be a classified draft of a presidential memo on Iran to AIPAC and an Israeli Embassy diplomat. Subsequent attention focused largely on whether Franklin was a spy for Israel, but in fact he is only a minor figure in a far more sweeping probe that began two years ago.
What triggered the original investigation isn’t known, but it is known that it began at a critical moment, as Feith and Rhode began assembling a team, which included Franklin, to form the OSP. It’s been widely reported that the OSP manufactured exaggerated intelligence reports on the threat from Iraq, but less reported is the fact that the OSP also carried out unauthorized operations. Several OSP officials–including Rhode, Franklin and Michael Maloof, one of the two original staffers of the forerunner to OSP, joined by Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)–took part in a rogue Pentagon initiative, beginning in 2001 with unsavory wheeler-dealers in Rome and Paris, to discuss regime change beyond Iraq, in Iran and Syria. The CIA found out about the Rome meeting, and the agency may have asked the FBI to start watching Feith, Rhode, Ledeen, Franklin et al. Former CIA and Defense intelligence officials familiar with the case stress that the FBI is looking at an operation run by the Israeli prime minister, not by the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, and that the investigation is based solely on concerns about foreign influence. “It’s about Sharon,” says a former senior CIA operations officer. “This has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.”