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.