The Big Chill

The Big Chill

Is the FBI’s Franklin/AIPAC case about spying–or clamping down on leaks?


A chill has taken hold lately among both government officials and the US media. It comes in the wake of a US district court’s decision to jail a New York Times reporter for refusing to reveal to a grand jury her sources in the Bush Administration and the FBI investigation of a Pentagon Iran analyst for leaking classified information to former officials with the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC. As a result, those who engage in what have long been standard Washington practices–reporters ferreting out information from government sources, those sources confiding in policy associates, lobbyists and reporters–have become increasingly inhibited in carrying out their jobs.

Even as a press frenzy surrounds a grand jury investigation of whether top presidential advisor Karl Rove leaked a CIA officer’s identity to the press, unease in the Washington policy and journalistic communities is also evident. In the wake of Times reporter Judith Miller’s jailing and in fear of government prosecution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer has decided, on the advice of its lawyers, not to publish two major articles based on leaked government information. At a recent gathering in a suburban Maryland living room, the conversation among a handful of foreign policy experts and reporters was about the sense of fear and clampdown. One government expert was convinced office phone conversations were regularly monitored by higher-ups, and reporters noted that senior government sources, intimidated by the Franklin investigation, have become more tight-lipped.

While the Franklin/AIPAC investigation is often described as a counterintelligence case, it too is really about government leaks, and the Bush Administration’s determination to plug them. On September 9, 2001, the New York Times published a story by then-State Department correspondent Jane Perlez, who reported a major shift in what had been the Bush Administration’s rejection of the Clinton Administration’s deep engagement in trying to broker a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. Perlez reported that after months of refusing to meet with Yasir Arafat, George W. Bush would grant the Palestinian leader his first audience with the new US President at an upcoming UN General Assembly gathering in New York “if progress were made in high-level talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis.”

That meeting between Bush and Arafat never happened. Two days after the Times story appeared, Al Qaeda terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing almost 3,000 people. In the aftermath of those attacks, few people recalled that for a brief moment in the late summer of 2001, the Bush Administration had considered meeting with Arafat and deepening its political involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Everyone forgot, except the FBI. According to a recent report by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, it was that September 2001 news article, based on leaks of sensitive Administration deliberations, that prompted then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to demand an FBI leak investigation that has since taken on a dramatic life of its own. Most recently, the investigation has led to the federal grand jury indictment, unsealed last month, of Pentagon Iran desk officer Larry Franklin on charges involving conspiracy to disclose classified national defense information to unauthorized recipients. It is expected to lead to indictments, under the Espionage Act, of two recently dismissed employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee for engaging in a conspiracy to receive and pass on to other unauthorized recipients what they knew to be classified information. They are AIPAC’s former director of foreign policy research, Steve Rosen, and his deputy, Iran specialist Keith Weissman. Among those the FBI reportedly wants to interview as a potential witness in its investigation is a Washington Post journalist who was allegedly briefed on some of the classified information by the former AIPAC officials–information those officials had allegedly received from Franklin in an FBI-arranged sting. In addition, Franklin, Rosen and Weissman are all alleged to have relayed classified national defense information to an Israeli Embassy official. It is this latter connection that has raised talk of espionage.

How does an investigation of a leak to the news media turn into an indictment that alleges a conspiracy to disclose US national security information illegally to, among others, a foreign official, with more indictments expected? The evidence available in the Franklin indictment and other sources does not seem to show the intention to commit espionage on behalf of Israel so much as the desire to cultivate Washington alliances that Franklin, Rosen and Weissman considered useful in the promotion of their own policy positions in the US government. As with most administrations, in the Bush Administration leaks have been employed by bureaucratic warriors on all sides of the heated Mideast policy debates to influence sensitive deliberations and take stabs at their opponents. It’s worth noting that President Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove, has been revealed as a suspect in a federal grand jury investigation (the same one in which Times reporter Miller has been jailed) of the circumstances by which a CIA officer’s identity was leaked to Washington reporters in an apparent Administration effort to discredit her husband, Joseph Wilson, a former diplomat critical of the President’s Iraq War policy.

In interviewing several sources knowledgeable about the investigation, what emerges is a complex portrait of Washington Mideast policy-making at a critical time, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, when there were near-constant interagency battles over the direction of US policy, not just on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but toward Iran and Iranian-backed forces in Iraq as well. What also emerges is a more detailed picture of the modus operandi of a brilliant and, some say, ruthless bureaucratic infighter at the country’s premiere Mideast lobbying group, who was emboldened by his long relationships with figures in and around the Bush Administration and the Washington scene to behave almost as an unofficial diplomatic entity in his own right.

The fact that that brilliant player, Steve Rosen, could become the target of a counterintelligence investigation during this Republican Administration is rich in irony. Several former Rosen associates describe him as a genius at political strategy and subterfuge, the Karl Rove of Jewish-American politics, who helped engineer the lobby group’s shift to the right on the American political spectrum; helped broker a strategic alliance between the pro-Israel lobby and Republican far-right legislators, including Senator Jesse Helms, in the 1980s; and who marshaled his organization’s resources to conduct de facto intelligence operations of his own.

As former associates and AIPAC officials describe it, those operations were replete with enemies’ lists of journalists and public figures. Rosen sent AIPAC interns as spies to take notes on the political views of other members of the small world of Jewish community political activism. One former AIPAC intern told The Nation that he was sent by Rosen to Arab-American conferences disguised as a WASP-y, pro-Palestinian liberal to find out which US Congressional candidates the attending groups were supporting. Former associates recite a list of AIPAC officials with Democratic staff connections on Capitol Hill who were purged from the organization in part, they allege, because of Rosen’s strategic efforts to move AIPAC decisively to the right. (Sources close to Rosen say that he wasn’t acting on his own in any of these endeavors, but as part of the organization. A source close to AIPAC downplays these activities and suggests that many of them ended years ago.)

Rosen’s “entire goal was to shift the organization away from a heavy reliance on Democrats and switch it to Republicans,” says M.J. Rosenberg, director of the Washington office of the Israel Policy Forum and the former editor of an AIPAC weekly newsletter who overlapped with Rosen at the organization in the early 1980s. “Why? Because he thought, maybe correctly, that the wave of the future was the right wing of the Republican Party.”

While such alleged efforts have made Rosen an object of controversy among some more left leaning members of the politically-active Washington Jewish policy community, even those who are not his fans do not believe Rosen is a spy. They describe a man motivated not so much by concern for Israel as a quest for behind-the-scenes power in Washington. “Steve Rosen doesn’t give a damn about Israel,” a Jewish community activist who requested anonymity explained. “These are game players. For them, it’s all about the game.”

For Rosen, that game became focused on Iran some time ago, in the early 1990s. According to former AIPAC sources, the reasons included a request by then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that AIPAC to stay out of delicate US-Israel negotiations over the Mideast peace process.

“From…when Rabin came in, Steve’s mandate has been to go after Iran, largely because Rabin didn’t want him messing around with the peace process,” says one veteran lobbyist who requested anonymity. “Steve took it and ran with it beyond anyone’s expectations. So what comes out of it is that you have a [US] Iran policy that AIPAC is driving. And this went well into the last [Clinton] Administration.

“Then along comes a new Administration that is made up of the same neocons that were promoting the [hawkish] Iran policy,” the veteran lobbyist continued, “but this Administration was divided down the center…. On the one hand, you have the neocons…on the other side, you have Powell and Richard Armitage and the State department [and the CIA], who want to try to open up a dialogue. One is for confrontation, and one is for dialogue…. So the neocons, the Iran hawks, know that they have got a natural ally…at other think tanks around town who feel the same way they do…. They also have AIPAC, which has made [Iran] its number-one issue…. My guess is that they went to AIPAC and the others with the same message: ‘You have friends we don’t have. Help us to persuade them to see it our way.'”

Persuading political heavyweights to see things his way was what Rosen was all about. Sources tell The Nation that Rosen has a long history of cultivating executive branch sources [see Rozen, “Hall of Mirrors,” posted here in May], milking them for information, boasting about his access to AIPAC’s funders and leadership, and engaging in strategic press leaks as a regular part of his efforts to influence policy and engage in bureaucratic warfare.

Indeed, the unsealed twenty-page Franklin indictment offers a fascinating peek into the government’s view of the Pentagon analyst and the AIPAC officials cultivating one another, presumably attempting to tip the Bush Administration toward a harder line against Iran. For the AIPAC officials, Franklin–who often appears frustrated at bureaucratic obstacles to this harder line-seems to have offered grumbling and insights on the bitter interagency Iran policy debates inside the Administration. For Franklin, the AIPAC officials must have seemed like sympathetic political sophisticates, freed from the tyranny of working in the government bureaucracy but with impressive influence among high-level officials in the White House and key members of Congress. Indeed, in a fascinating reversal of the ordinary official-lobbyist relationship, it appears from the indictment that Franklin thought Rosen could bypass the bureaucracy and take Franklin’s information straight to the White House, and possibly “put in a good word for him” to get a job at the National Security Council.

But the Franklin indictment raises a key question: What exactly is the nature of the conspiracy the government believes it has uncovered? The kind of information the AIPAC officials seemed most interested in wasn’t intelligence but policy information: who in the bureaucracy was arguing which position on Iran, who were the obstacles to the adoption of hard-line policies and the like.

“I don’t think anyone’s spying for anyone,” says a Jewish community activist, no fan of Rosen’s, who asked not to be named. “Rosen is not working for Israel, because he was working for a separate sovereign entity [AIPAC]. Franklin just wanted to be a policy nerd, to advocate for a policy he thought wasn’t getting enough attention.”

But there are seeming anomalies to this benign interpretation of the relationship to be found in the Franklin indictment as well. The most interesting and surprising part of the indictment describes fourteen meetings between Franklin and an “FO” (foreign officer), widely reported to be Israeli Embassy political officer Naor Gilon. They met in the open, at the Pentagon Officers’ Athletic Club and Washington-area coffee shops and restaurants, between 2002 and 2004. The last part of the indictment asserts that at some point Franklin disclosed to Gilon “classified United States government information relating to a weapons test conducted by a Middle Eastern country,” presumably Iran. It is hard to discount such an unauthorized disclosure to a foreign government official as an ordinary leak.

Another intriguing issue: The indictment describes Franklin’s returning from one of his meetings with Gilon in May 2003 and drafting an “Action Memo to his supervisors, incorporating suggestions made by the FO during the meeting.” This suggests the FBI may be interested not only in alleged leaks from Franklin to unauthorized recipients but in the possibility of Franklin’s feeding information from those officials back into the system, in an effort to influence US policy toward Iran. This raises the question of whether the government thinks the nature of the conspiracy was not only a matter of unauthorized leaks but also a coordinated effort by Franklin and perhaps his alleged co-conspirators to shape the US policy environment in a kind of agent-of-influence scenario. The US Attorney’s office declined to comment on the case.

The Nation has learned that among the documents the FBI has in its possession is a memo written by Rosen in 1983, soon after he joined AIPAC, to his then-boss describing his having been informed about the contents of a classified draft of a White House position paper concerning the Middle East and telling his boss that their inside knowledge of the draft might enable the group to influence the final document. The significance would seem to be an effort by the FBI to establish a pattern of Rosen’s accessing classified information to which he was not authorized, not just from Franklin but over many years. Rosen’s attorneys declined to comment on the allegation.

Stephen Green, a Vermont state legislator and former UN official who in the 1980s pursued independent scholarship critical of Israeli-US relations including by requesting through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) State Department documentation on counterintelligence probes, says the FBI’s concerns about Rosen pre-date the September 2001 news leak incident. Green says in meetings with FBI investigators last year, “I was told by investigators that his name has showed up in wiretaps more than once over time,” Green told The Nation. What’s more, Green says, he believes the FBI considers Franklin only a little fish useful to getting Rosen.

Former FBI attorney Harvey Rishikof says that both theories, that this investigation is about leaking, or that it is motivated by graver counter- intelligence concerns, could be true. “They are not necessarily opposing theories,” Rishikof told The Nation. “If you are worried about counterintelligence issues, and counterintelligence issues are also related to leak issues, so that individuals are using strategic leaks basically for counterintelligence purposes, you then link up the two threads…If you were the government, the leaks then become the method by which you are able to shut down what appears to be a counterintelligence problem.”

The full picture of the government’s case against Rosen will not emerge until an indictment is handed down, assuming there even is one. It is not even clear how he originally appeared on the FBI’s radar screen. But if prosecutors focus on Rosen’s alleged long-term cultivation of executive branch sources, who might have improperly shared with him privileged information about US national security deliberations, it’s a twist on what we understand as a typical spy story, because such behavior, at least in its unclassified form, is the very currency of the capital: Washington lobbyists cultivating inside sources and trading information with them to influence policy.

Whether it was the FBI’s intention or not, one result of the Franklin/AIPAC investigation, along with the jailing of Miller in the Wilson investigation, has been the fortressing of the executive branch; the danger is that this could enable the Bush Administration to shape policies with even less consultation from the public and Congress.

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