The vagaries of U.S. involvement in the Middle East were surely brought home to First Lady Laura Bush on her recent trip to Israel, on a tour of Jerusalem’s holiest sites. At the Wailing Wall, where she placed a note in the Western Wall – as is the custom – she faced surly throngs of protesters shouting "Free Pollard Now!" The Pollardites also showed up earlier that morning, as Mrs. Bush paid a visit to the home of Israeli President Moshe Katsav: "Pollard, the people are with you!" they chanted.
Jonathan Pollard, the jailed spy who sold U.S. secrets to Israel, is a national hero in Israel, and Tel Aviv has never stopped importuning Washington for his release. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reportedly brought up the issue again on his recent visit to America, where he bargained with American officials on Pollard’s behalf in return for the promise of continued cooperation with Bush’s peace plan. He probably got nowhere: when Bill Clinton reportedly gave in to the Israelis’ blandishments in return for a promise of cooperation on his Middle East peace plan, whole battalions of top government officials threatened to resign. Perhaps, though, Sharon also intervened on behalf of another more recent practitioner of Israeli spycraft on American soil: Larry Franklin, a Jonathan Pollard for our times.
We have our Pollardites in America, too, and they are much in evidence these days as another major Israeli spy ring is on the verge of being busted and hauled into court. The recent arrest of Franklin, a 58-year-old Pentagon analyst who – until recently – headed up the policy department’s Iran desk, has conjured the specter of Pollard’s heinous crime – and promises to be just as injurious to American national security, if not more so.
Franklin, a longtime Defense Intelligence Agency analyst and fervent neoconservative, was observed by FBI agents in the summer of 2003 imparting top secret information to two employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the spearhead of Israel’s amen corner in the U.S. What is striking about this story is that Franklin’s perfidy was discovered only because these two top officials – Steve Rosen, AIPAC’s longtime policy director, and Keith Weissman, their Iran specialist – were already under surveillance by law enforcement agencies. As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency put it in a recent report:
"Information garnered during the investigation into alleged leaks from a Pentagon analyst to the two former AIPAC staffers suggests the FBI began probing AIPAC officials just before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks."
I’ve been covering this investigation since it surfaced last year, when CBS leaked the news that Franklin’s treachery had been unearthed. That initial report – which originated, it is clear in retrospect, as an attempt to derail the investigation, and warn Franklin’s co-conspirators that the feds were on their trail – was the occasion for a cacophony of catcalls, all coming from Israel’s intrepid defenders in the neoconservative media and the various pro-Israel lobbying groups. The party line was to downplay the charges – "People exchange information in Washington all the time!" – and imply, not so subtly, that anyone who lends credence to the accusations against Franklin, Rosen, and Weissman, let alone makes them, is an anti-Semite.
When Franklin was finally arrested, however, reflexively pro-Israel neocons like Joel Mowbray and Kate O’Beirne sneered that the charges didn’t rise to the level of espionage, and averred that the whole thing was merely a matter of "mishandling" classified information: a tempest in a teapot. And on the left, an otherwise excellent piece by Laura Rozen in The Nation downplayed the charges in a less obvious way.
Rozen, a perceptive reporter who has been following this story from the start, gives us the essential context of the Franklin affair by showing that he was very much a part of a small, tightly-knit network inside the Pentagon dedicated to provoking war not only with Iraq but also igniting a regional conflict including Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and beyond. She does a very good job, in her piece, of showing how Franklin was at the center of this group’s covert machinations: he had a penchant, as she puts it, for "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," Rozen writes, "Franklin … was hardly acting as a lone wolf." These rogue operations were projects of the neoconservative matrix in Washington, which reaches not only into the bowels of the Pentagon but also seems to have gained access to the higher echelons of this administration, and virtually taken over the Vice President’s office lock, stock, and barrel.
Douglas Feith, Franklin’s boss, is close to Israel’s Likud party, and in 1996, he and Richard Perle, James Colbert, Charles Fairbanks, Jr, Robert Loewenberg, David Wurmser, and Meyrav Wurmser prepared a position paper for then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, "A Clean Break," that outlined a strategy for extracting Israel from its strategic dilemma: the invasion of Iraq, followed by the elimination of Syria, and the neutralization of Iran, topped their agenda. What they didn’t say in the policy paper was that the United States would be doing their dirty work for them, but in retrospect we can see plainly enough that utilizing American military power figured prominently in their plan.
By 2001, when George Bush came to Washington, they were in a position to implement their "Clean Break" scenario, as nearly all of them were ensconced in top policymaking positions, including Feith as Assistant Secretary of Defense for policy. There Franklin and like-minded neocons toiled in the vineyards of the Office of Special Plans (OSP) and other makeshift bureaucratic constructs, where they massaged raw intelligence garnered from convicted embezzler and liar Ahmed Chalabi and manufactured the case for war with Iraq. Rozen, who has written at length on the neocons, knows her subject well, and does an excellent job of summarizing the essential points. However, she fumbles the ball when she tries to tie this in with the specifics of the Franklin affair. She writes:
"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. "
Rosen’s prominence as a leader – the de facto leader and central figure of AIPAC – and sparkplug of a phenomenally successful lobbying operation is enough to make AIPAC’s role as a transmission belt of treason all too clear. Let’s say that the principal figure an organization lobbying on behalf of, say, Russia, or Saudi Arabia, had been accused of activities similar to those Rosen is accused of engaging in. Would anybody hesitate to detect a "pattern" of espionage on the part of its officials? I think not.
"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."
Rozen takes a line similar to that of Edwin Black, and various spokespersons for pro-Israel lobbying organizations, that the case against Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman is entirely the result of a "sting" operation. As the story goes, the FBI "turned" Franklin, after confronting him with evidence of his treason, and got him to agree to help them reel in the two hapless AIPAC officials. This is the crux of Rozen’s piece: that the major evidence backing up the FBI’s case was obtained by means of deliberate entrapment: How does she know this?
The answer is: she doesn’t, and her error is underscored by the unfortunate timing of her piece. Shortly after The Nation published Rozen’s article, the New York Sun came out with the rather stunning news that the charges against the AIPAC duo are far graver than passing on information about possible Iranian attacks against Israeli spies stationed in Iraq’s Kurdish region, as Rozen – repeating assertions by Black – appears to believe.
According to a report by Eli Lake, while AIPAC is still paying the legal fees of Rosen and Weissman, they fired them on the advice of AIPAC’s legal counsel, Nathan Lewin, when he discovered what the FBI had on their two erstwhile employees:
"The charges against Messrs. Rosen and Weissman, which have yet to be made publicly, were so secret that Mr. Lewin needed security clearance just to hear them."
That doesn’t sound as if Rosen and Weissman were merely trying to sound the alarm that Israeli lives were in imminent danger. Apparently Paul McNulty of the Eastern district of Virginia and his fellow prosecutors do indeed have more evidence in this case than the sharing of a few policy papers and the passing on of a few tidbits of lifesaving intelligence to the Israelis. The crime of the AIPAC spies involves stealing secrets so highly classified that to even describe what they did involves a major breach of our national security. What more do we need to know?
I am absolutely floored, however, that Rozen, with her detailed knowledge of this case, would so lightly pass over its mysterious origins. How is it that the FBI was keeping tabs on the well-known AIPAC lobbyist and his policy aide to begin with? Rozen cites reporting by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency:
"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."
This seems a mighty weak reed on which to hang such a portentous and politically charged investigation. Yet there are other, more credible reports that contradict this rather lame scenario, such as Knight Ridder’s Warren Strobel, who cites law enforcement and government officials as saying that the probe goes well beyond the Franklin affair. According to them, the investigation touches on all those "critical and murky junctures of recent history" in which Franklin and his pals played such a pivotal role:
"They include how the Iraqi National Congress, a former exile group backed by the Pentagon, allegedly received highly classified U.S. intelligence on Iran; the leaking of the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame to reporters; and the production of bogus documents suggesting that Iraq tried to buy uranium for nuclear weapons from the African country of Niger. Bush repeated the Niger claim in making the case for war against Iraq.
"’The whole ball of wax” was how one U.S. official privy to the briefings described the inquiry."
Last year, I wrote that the burgeoning scandals besetting this administration over the pattern of misreported intelligence and deliberate deception that marked our path to war with Iraq should all be consolidated into a single super-scandal, "Neocon-gate." These various scandals – Chalabi-gate, Plame-gate, Niger uranium-gate – all involve the same group of people: the neoconservative cabal embedded in the civilian leadership of the Pentagon. I even opined that some of them might one day be "wearing one of those cute little orange jumpsuits and making some tattooed bruiser named Butch very happy." Little did I know at the time that the charge would be espionage, but I can’t say that I’m all that surprised.
If we observe how we were lied into war with Iraq, and by whom, the whole affair looks more like an Israeli covert operation by the day. U.S. soldiers in Iraq are taking bullets, RPG attacks, and plenty of casualties, while Ariel Sharon ensures the stillbirth of a Palestinian state and takes a good part of the West Bank.
The neocon network inside our government, of which Franklin was a loyal foot-soldier, is being pulled up by its roots: and there is some evidence that those roots go even deeper than practically anyone now imagines. As UPI’s Richard Sale reports, a senior U.S. government official says the FBI began watching Gilon in 2001, when law enforcement became aware of "massive Israeli spying operations in the East Coast, including New York and New Jersey." One wonders, does he mean this, or this – or maybe even this?
It’s pathetic, really, to watch our own Pollardites twist and turn as they desperately try to spin the Franklin affair as much ado about nothing. And it’s disgusting to see every important politician in the country trek to the AIPAC conference this past weekend, and take the podium pledging eternal loyalty to Israel, parroting back the party line on Iran and Syria to dutiful applause – and not mentioning that the heart and soul of AIPAC’s Washington operation is deeply implicated in a burgeoning espionage investigation.
One was particularly struck by the remarks of Condi Rice, who blithered that AIPAC will doubtless enjoy "a bright future." (Tell me again how it was Rice who set the AIPAC investigation in motion.) The conference was as staged and propagandistic as a Soviet party congress, and just as predictable, especially the unintentionally comic speech by AIPAC President Howard Kohr, who pledged:
"I will take any steps necessary to ensure that every employee of AIPAC, now and in the future, conducts himself in a manner that you will be proud of, using policies and procedures that provide transparency, accountability and effectiveness."
What’s transparent about AIPAC is its brazen policy of acting as the agent of a foreign power without making hardly any bones about it – and without having to register as such. That brazenness may have come to an end, however, and it is painful to watch as Kohr performs some pretty strenuous logical gymnastics in order to somehow twist the damning reality into a palatable untruth: Kohr said:
"It was of the utmost importance that the official document submitted by the FBI to the courts in the matter of former Pentagon employee Larry Franklin proves ‘we now know directly from the government that neither AIPAC nor any of its current employees isn’t and never was a target of this investigation.'”
Yeah, sure: that’s why the FBI has been tracking top AIPAC officials for at least four years. The truth is, the affidavit [.pdf] says no such thing, and if Kohr means that because they didn’t state it directly that AIPAC is off the hook, he is really plumbing the depths to make his not very point.
The theme of this conference was American patriotism, and the graphic representations of intertwined American and Israeli flags adorning the stage was meant to convey the complete absence of duality or conflict, and yet the whole slickly choreographed charade – including a speech by Ariel Sharon, justifying the "disengagement" plan and chuckling over his role as one of Israel’s foremost farmers – conveyed just the opposite. All the super-patriotic graphics in the world won’t cover up the treachery that lived at the very heart of their organization – and that is now about to be exposed to the light of day.
Franklin is due to be arraigned in federal court on May 27 for a preliminary hearing, and once again this important story will be in the news. Let them cite Condi Rice and cry "anti-Semitism" all they want. Let the Joel Mowbrays and the Michael Ledeens spin and weave a web of evasions: no doubt they’ll come up with some pretty novel excuses for treason. The rest of us, however, will be watching with great interest as the story of Israel’s fifth column in America is told in court.
The protesters who greeted the First Lady at the Wailing Wall had every reason to call for Pollard’s freedom: as Israeli nationalists, who put the interests of their own country first, it doesn’t matter to them that Pollard, an American citizen, handed over reams of vitally important U.S. secrets that wound up in the hands of the Soviet Union and resulted in the deaths of many American agents behind the Iron Curtain. What matters is that Pollard was acting to ensure Israel’s survival – and to hell with everyone else.
The actions of the Pollardites at the West Wall were rude, but perfectly understandable. They are, after all, Israelis, not Americans. But what about our own Pollardites, who are busy making the case for the defense of Rosen, Weiss, and Franklin even before the indictments are in and the prosecution has a chance to present the facts? What’s their excuse?
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I‘ll be making another appearance on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! Show, this time discussing the Larry Franklin/AIPAC affair. The show is live early Wednesday morning in the 8-9am hour (Eastern time) – it looks like I’ll be in the second segment, about 10 or 15 minutes into the program: The show will be available on on 330 radio stations, on satellite TV and will be available archived later on the Democracy Now! Website.
The show will also be on:
Direct-TV, channel 375, from 11am-12noon and 6-7pm (Eastern time) and
Dish Network, channel 9415, 8-9AM, 12-1PM, 7-8PM and 12-1AM (Eastern time).