The indictment [.pdf file] of Larry Franklin, the 58-year-old analyst who headed up the Pentagon’s Iran desk, marks a milestone in the FBI’s four-year-plus probe into Israel’s covert activities in the U.S. The investigation predates 9/11 and involves some of the leading figures associated with planning and agitating for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The players: a hardline faction of the administration committed to “regime change” not only in Iraq, but throughout the Middle East. Skilled at the art of bureaucratic infighting and relentlessly determined, even as the neocons’ plan for the invasion and occupation of Iraq was being implemented they were planning to put the next phase of their grand plan for the Middle East into operation: a confrontation with Iran.
At the Iran desk, Larry Franklin was the perfect patsy, the neocons’ gofer who was in a position to not only fight for their policies but also to provide them with sensitive intelligence [.pdf]. And that’s where the bureaucratic turf wars that raged throughout this administration, between the neocons and the “realists,” crossed the line into treason.
The indictment lists two unindicted co-conspirators, identifying them only as “CC1” and “CC2,” but we know from numerous news accounts that they refer to Steve Rosen, AIPAC’s longtime public policy director, and Keith Weissman, the lobby’s Iran specialist. For two years, the indictment charges, Franklin “did unlawfully, knowingly, and willingly conspire, confederate, and agree, together with persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury, to communicate, deliver, and transmit information relating to the national defense to CC-1 and CC-2, persons not entitled to receive such information, with reason to believe that such information could be used to the injury of the United States and to the advantage of a foreign nation.”
That foreign nation is the state of Israel, a country passionately interested in U.S. policy toward Iran and aggressively pursuing a campaign to glean all the information it can about the making of that policy in a clear effort to shape it. The indictment shows how the Israelis used AIPAC for that purpose.
It also shows the extraordinary access AIPAC has to U.S. government officials. All Steve Rosen had to do, one summer day in 2002, was put in a call to “DoD Employee A” and ask for someone with expertise on Iran, and he was promptly given Franklin’s name.
Rosen and Weissman set up a meeting with Franklin and another Pentagon policy wonk (“DoD Employee B”), and pretty soon the rudiments of a spy nest were being constructed by the defendant and his co-conspirators. The indictment relates an intercepted phone conversation in which Rosen chortles excitedly en route to a meeting with Franklin that he’s got “a real insider,” “a Pentagon guy” on the hook. At that meeting, Franklin discloses “national defense information” to Rosen and Weissman: the two AIPACers then take the information and feed it to an unidentified journalist. That reporter is Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post who was also of interest to prosecutors on the trail of who leaked CIA officer Valerie Plame‘s name to the media.
What was in it for Franklin? He is widely believed to be an ideological neoconservative and passionately devoted to Israel’s cause, but there was also the chance for a promotion. After proving his usefulness to the Israelis, by the winter of February 2003 Franklin and Rosen were already talking about getting him a position on the National Security Council staff: Franklin would be “by the elbow of the president,” said Rosen. Franklin asked Rosen to “put in a good word” for him, and Rosen said “I’ll do what I can,” remarking that their previous meeting had been “a real eye-opener.”
From what we know about this particular breakfast meeting, Franklin handed over a draft of a presidential “finding,” an internal policy paper that would set out the parameters of our actions vis-à-vis Iran. The indictment further relates that Franklin “disclosed to [Rosen] and [Weissman] national defense information relating to” the document.
Franklin and his AIPAC friends certainly acted like espionage agents. At one point, they met at Union Station in Washington, D.C., early in the morning:
“In the course of the meeting, the three men moved from one restaurant to another restaurant and then finished the meeting in an empty restaurant.”
If these were just three guys out to discuss U.S.-Israel relations over lunch, why all the cloak-and-dagger stuff? They obviously suspected they were being followed: with justification, as it turns out. Franklin insisted on faxing materials to Rosen’s residence rather than the AIPAC office: no need to take unnecessary risks.
They were careful when it came to the possibility of being followed but threw caution to the winds when talking on the phone. They probably never suspected the FBI was listening: after all, in order to tap someone’s phone, the cops have to go to a real live judge and come up with some compelling evidence that it’s necessary. Apparently, the FBI had no trouble meeting that standard.
Rosen was apparently quite a braggart: in a conversation with a journalist about the purloined internal policy paper, he confessed, “I’m not supposed to know this” and averred that it was a “considerable story.” His braggadocio may be his undoing, however, as this conversation helps make the case that Rosen knew he was breaking the law.
Rosen and Weissman soon passed their prize acquisition directly over to the Israelis: on Aug. 15, 2002, Naor Gilon, chief political officer at the Israeli embassy in Washington, met with Franklin at a Washington, D.C., restaurant, where Gilon explained to Franklin that “he would be the appropriate person with whom the defendant should talk” that is, if he had anything really pressing to say. A month later, Franklin called the embassy, and they handed him over to Gilon. They met again on Jan. 30, 2003, after months of playing phone tag, at an unspecified location near the Israeli embassy building in Washington, where they discussed Iran’s nuclear program. They met regularly from February through May and throughout the summer, sometimes at the Pentagon Officers Athletic Club; the focus seemed to be on Iran’s nuclear program and the U.S. response. At one point, Gilon arranged for Franklin to meet with “former” top Mossad official Uzi Arad, now head of the Herziliya Center in Israel. The three of them chatted about Iran’s nukes.
There are intriguing references sprinkled throughout the indictment that provide the skeleton of a spy thriller: in late February of 2004, Gilon and Franklin exchanged phone calls “about certain foreign organizations.” In June, they met at a Washington, D.C., coffeehouse where “Franklin provided [Gilon] with classified information he had learned from a classified United States government document related to a Middle Eastern country’s activities in Iraq.” Later that month, Gilon brought along “another official from Foreign Nation A,” namely Israel, and Franklin provided additional information about the military situation in Iraq, as well as copies of a speech and a “list of questions that a senior United States government official was to give that day or the next before the Congressional Foreign Affairs Committee.” This has to mean the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations closed briefing on Iraq given by Colin Powell on June 23. At some point between December 2003 and June 2004, the two met at “an unknown location,” where Franklin spilled the beans about “a weapons test conducted by a Middle Eastern country.”
In trying to piece together what we know from the indictments and news reports, there are discrepancies: for example, it is hard to say where exactly this description of a lunch between Gilon, Rosen, Weissman, and Franklin fits in: Newsweek has Gilon at the scene, but the indictment doesn’t mention it. The key event, from which several charges emanate, was a June 26, 2003, luncheon in Arlington, Va., near Washington, where Franklin met his AIPAC co-spies and started off by saying, “You set the agenda.” Rosen told him he understood that “the constraints” placed on Franklin when he met with them were considerable, but apparently all concerned let these go by the board as Franklin revealed an alleged threat to American (and Israeli) troops in Iraq and Kurdistan supposedly emanating from Iran. Franklin told his co-conspirators that information was “highly classified” and warned them not to use it. In the laconic prose of the indictment, he also revealed classified information “related to the intelligence reporting activities of a foreign nation,” and again told them to keep it to themselves. Could this be the information that the U.S. had broken the Iranian code and was reading Tehran’s internal government communications information that later got back to Ahmed Chalabi‘s boys and, through them, was passed on to the Iranians? We just don’t know yet, but the prospect is intriguing and not at all unlikely, as Warren Strobel of Knight Ridder has reported:
“Several U.S. officials and law enforcement sources said Thursday that the scope of the FBI probe of Pentagon intelligence activities appeared to go well beyond the Franklin matter. FBI agents have briefed top White House, Pentagon, and State Department officials on the probe in recent days. Based on those briefings, officials said, the bureau appears to be looking into other controversies that have roiled the Bush administration, some of which also touch Feith’s office.
“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.”
After the June 26 meeting, Rosen and Weissman talked between themselves about the gold mine of information they had in Franklin: Rosen marveled at the “highly classified” nature of what he had told them and remarked that it was “quite a story.” He also told Weissman: “Well, look, it seems to me that this channel is one to keep wide open insofar as possible.” Weissman said he was going to be taking Franklin to a baseball game, to which Rosen replied: “Smart guy. That’s the thing to do.”
Yeah, especially if you’re milking this guy for all the classified information he can lay his hands on. Befriend him. Make him feel comfortable, like part of a team Israel’s team, that is.
Aside from the unremarkable fact that Israel is spying on its alleged best friend, stealing our secrets and trying to influence policy in any way it can, why is any of this important? Because, as Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball point out in Newsweek:
“Franklin was known to be one of a tightly knit group of pro-Israel hawks in the Pentagon associated with his immediate superior, William Luti, the hard-charging and impassioned protegé of former House speaker Newt Gingrich. As deputy assistant secretary of defense for Near East affairs, Luti was a key player in planning the Iraq war. He, in turn, works in the office of Undersecretary Douglas Feith, a career lawyer who, before he became the Pentagon’s No. 3, was a sometime consultant for Likud, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s political party.”
Feith‘s staff is a nexus of neocon activity in this administration: they were the spark plugs behind the “Office of Special Plans,” which fed phony “intelligence” on Iraq’s alleged WMD to the White House and Congress via Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress and other equally dubious sources. When the CIA wouldn’t cooperate in cooking the intelligence according to the neocons’ recipe for war, they simply set up their own parallel intelligence-gathering “rogue” operation, a “lie factory,” as one article describing its activities put it, churning out half–baked rationales for invading Iraq. This is a favorite neocon method: acting under color of authority of the U.S. government when they have no authorization or legal right to do so. Franklin was involved with his colleague Harold Rhode and Pentagon consultant Michael Ledeen in another such “rogue” operation: setting up a series of meetings in Paris and Rome with Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian arms dealer of Iran-Contra fame, to get behind a plan for “regime change” in Iran. This whole crowd was deeply involved in lying us into war and the effort to pull off a similar scenario when it comes to Iran.
Did the neocon network in Washington allow itself to become an instrument of Israeli espionage against the United States? Franklin’s arrest and the disclosure of his activities or some of them in the indictment raises this question, albeit not for the first time. Who is “DoD employee A” the one who referred Rosen to Franklin to begin with? And what about “DoD employee B,” who inexplicably turned up at Franklin’s first meeting with Rosen and Weissman?
It’s just not credible that Franklin is alone in his disloyalty. He was and is part of a larger group actively committed to a very specific ideological bias, one that valorizes the role of Israel in spurring the U.S. to bolder action in the Middle East. That this agenda redounds to the advantage of the Israelis is due, we are told, to the natural confluence of interests, and is not the result of a determined effort overt or covert on the part of the Israelis. However, Franklin’s arrest and the public revelation of his spying on behalf of Israel demonstrates once and for all that these denials are hogwash.
As AIPAC’s top officials snuck around our nation’s capital with Franklin in tow, meeting clandestinely and whispering secrets in the dark, that organization’s role as a cover for Israeli covert activities was crystal clear to the FBI agents tailing them and now we know it, too. As AIPAC reached into the Pentagon and turned a highly placed official into a spy, promising to use the lobbying group’s legendary influence to secure him a big promotion, Pat Buchanan’s famous description of Washington as “Israeli-occupied territory” no longer seems over the top.
In ripping up and exposing Israel’s Washington spy nest, federal prosecutors will be disturbing all kinds of unpleasant nocturnal creatures. If you pick up a big rock, you never know what’s going to scuttle out and this trial, scheduled to start Sept. 6, is sure to give us a few surprises. One thing that won’t surprise me, however, is a widening investigation and more indictments.