Hall of Mirrors

Hall of Mirrors

A report on the mysteries of the FBI’s Larry Franklin/AIPAC investigation.


For a nondescript, middle-aged former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, Pentagon Iran desk officer Larry Franklin had the habit of showing up at critical and murky junctures of recent history. He was part of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, which provided much-disputed intelligence on Iraq; he courted controversial Iraqi exile politician Ahmad Chalabi, who contributed much of that hyped and misleading Iraq intelligence; and he participated with a Pentagon colleague and former Iran/contra arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar in a controversial December 2001 meeting in Rome–which, in a clear violation of US government protocol, was kept secret from the CIA and the State Department.

In all these endeavors, Franklin, 58, was hardly acting as a lone wolf. Rather, he was wired into a small network of like-minded Iran and Iraq hawks who lobbied fiercely inside and outside the Bush Administration for their policy positions, often in furious opposition to moderate bureaucrats in the State Department and the CIA. Because of their connections and status, the hawks were often successful in short-circuiting standard bureaucratic procedures and getting the attention of the White House. When the news first broke last summer that the FBI was investigating an alleged “Israeli mole” in the Pentagon–inaccurate, as it turned out–the chief suspect, Franklin, was portrayed as just one of 1,300 employees toiling anonymously under outgoing Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith. In fact, Franklin was the Pentagon’s top Iran desk officer.

The media has focused its spotlight even more sharply on Franklin since his arrest earlier this month. He was charged by the FBI with disclosing classified information to unauthorized recipients, including “a foreign official and members of the media.” (Franklin was released on $100,000 bail and will face a pretrial hearing on May 27.) Two recipients of the information are reported to be recently dismissed employees of the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. For close observers of the Franklin/AIPAC case, the question is whether the FBI probe will finally make public the mysterious machinations of Franklin’s network in the Pentagon and the Bush Administration, or whether the investigation will become a diversion, obscuring graver failures in judgment by Administration policy-makers. Even more disturbing, there are indications that, like the Valerie Plame leak case, the Franklin affair may turn into an excuse to hound journalists.

It’s useful to examine Franklin’s alleged crime against the policy backdrop that drove it, in particular the raging interagency debate during Bush’s first term concerning US policy on Iran. Fearing the Islamic Republic’s growing strength in post-Saddam Iraq and the Persian Gulf generally, the Pentagon neocons thought they had found a creative solution: using the US presence in Iraq and the cultivation of key opposition groups in Iran to destabilize the Tehran regime. Advocating a plan modeled on the Reagan Administration’s covert support of anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan, the contras in Nicaragua and the Solidarity movement in Poland, the Pentagon neocons urged the Bush White House to sign a presidential directive that would permit covert measures against Iran. They were opposed by State Department moderates, who argued that Iran was playing a quietly helpful role in Iraq. One argument the hawks used in their favor was the existence of US intelligence reports alleging hostile Iranian activities threatening the stability of post-Saddam Iraq. And one group they tried to recruit in support of their proposed directive was AIPAC–a natural ally, since the powerful pro-Israel lobby group has long wielded great influence in shaping the hard-line US policy against Iran.

On June 26, 2003, according to an FBI affidavit accompanying the criminal charges filed against Franklin, he met in an Arlington, Virginia, restaurant with “US Persons 1 and 2,” widely reported to be Steve Rosen, the former director of policy for AIPAC, and Keith Weissman, a former Iran specialist for the lobby group. (After months of insisting that none of its employees had done anything improper, AIPAC dismissed both Rosen and Weissman last month.) Over the course of that meeting, Franklin was observed by the FBI discussing with his companions the contents of a “Top Secret” US government document dated from the day before that contained information on threats to US forces in Iraq. It is apparent from reading the FBI affidavit accompanying the Franklin charges that the bureau was already monitoring one or both of the AIPAC officials when Franklin stumbled into the picture that June. According to reporting by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), the FBI investigation of AIPAC began at least as early as 2001, perhaps in response to complaints from then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice about leaks concerning Administration deliberations over whether to meet Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.

It was not until a year after that lunch, in June 2004, that the FBI got a criminal warrant to search Franklin’s Pentagon office space, where the bureau discovered the 2003 document on which Franklin had briefed the AIPAC officials. A search of Franklin’s home in West Virginia the same day found eighty-three more classified documents, almost half of them Top Secret (removing classified government documents to an unauthorized location, as Franklin’s home was, is a federal offense potentially punishable by a prison term). The affidavit says that shortly after that search Franklin admitted to the FBI that he had shared information from the classified 2003 document with his lunch companions.

According to reports by the JTA, at some point in 2004 the FBI used the evidence it had on Franklin to persuade him to cooperate in its investigation–one that had him playing his more or less usual role of whistleblower on hostile Iranian activities in Iraq to other people of interest to the FBI, to see how they would behave. Among those reportedly called by Franklin were allies of Ahmad Chalabi, to find out who might have leaked to him the highly classified information that the United States had broken Iran’s communications codes in Iraq–a fact Chalabi allegedly shared with the Iranians; a former CIA attorney who had sued the agency claiming he was the subject of an anti-Israel witch hunt; and Weissman, the AIPAC Iran hand.

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:

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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