WASHINGTON - AIPAC, the powerhouse pro-Israel lobby currently embroiled in allegations of spying for Israel, was set up by the FBI, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
FBI agents used a courier, Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin, to draw two senior AIPAC officials who already knew him into accepting what he described to them as "classified" information, reliable government and other sources intimately familiar with the investigation have told the Post.
One of the AIPAC pair then told diplomats at the Israeli Embassy in Washington about the "classified" information, which claimed Iranians were monitoring and planning to kidnap and kill Israelis operating in the Kurdish areas in northern Iraq, the Post has been told.
It is unclear whether the "classified" information was real or bogus.
AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) denies any wrongdoing.
Knowingly transferring classified information to a foreign power can be a breach of US espionage statutes. Legal experts have told the Post that passing on bogus classified information may be used to demonstrate intent to violate the law but does not itself constitute a crime.
Franklin, an Iran expert, was already under investigation by the FBI for allegedly passing classified information to AIPAC when, the Post's sources say, FBI counterintelligence agents approached him to play a central role in the setup operation this past summer.
The FBI had been monitoring AIPAC's activities for some two years when, last year, its agents observed two AIPAC officials, Steve Rosen, director of foreign policy issues, and Keith Weissman, a senior Middle East analyst with the lobby, at a lunch meeting with Franklin in Washington.
At this lunch, it has been widely reported, Franklin allegedly briefed the AIPAC pair on the content of a draft national security presidential directive on Iran.
Details of the draft, which included proposed measures the US could employ to destabilize the Iranian regime, were already circulating at the time. According to some reports, an Israeli diplomat at the embassy in Washington, Naor Gilon, was also present at the lunch.
Earlier this year, the FBI informed Franklin that, as a consequence of the lunch meeting, he was under investigation. The Pentagon analyst, hoping for leniency, agreed to cooperate with FBI agents in what would become the setting up of AIPAC, a process designed to bust the lobby for passing secrets to Israel.
The FBI agents told Franklin to request a meeting with Rosen and Weissman. He initiated contact with the AIPAC pair, and told them that he needed to discuss a ticking-bomb situation.
Franklin was then dispatched to meet the two AIPAC officials and outline the alleged threat to Israelis in northern Iraq, the Post has been told.
Saying his access to the White House was limited, Franklin also expressed concern that the Bush administration was underestimating the extent to which Iranian agents were operating in Iraq and asked the AIPAC officials to stress this point in their meetings with US officials.
The agents' hope, plainly, was that the AIPAC pair would be so troubled by the apparent life-and-death content of the information from Franklin as to risk a breach of US espionage statutes and transfer what they believed to be classified material to a foreign power, Israel.
And that, the Post has been told, is precisely what happened.
Franklin, according to news reports, cooperated with the FBI until about two months ago. In early October, he abruptly stopped working with authorities, dropped his court-appointed attorney and sought the legal counsel of Plato Cacheris, a prominent Washington defense lawyer who has represented numerous accused spies.
"Obviously his was a bad deal," says one source familiar with Franklin's decision to stop cooperating with the bureau.
News of the initial Franklin-AIPAC lunch broke last summer: CBS led its August 27 Nightly News broadcast with a report of a "full-fledged espionage investigation under way," saying the FBI was about to "roll up" a suspected Israeli "mole" in the office of the secretary of defense in the Pentagon.
CBS reported that, using wiretaps, undercover surveillance and photography, the FBI had documented the passing of a classified presidential directive on Iran from the suspected mole to two people who work at AIPAC. Sources familiar with the matter, however, said no documents exchanged hands.
CBS's sensational allegation immediately conjured up memories of the Pollard affair, the 1985 arrest and subsequent conviction in 1987 and life imprisonment for espionage of US naval intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard for passing classified information to Israel.
The investigation into Franklin and the AIPAC officials continued quietly, with little subsequent media coverage, in recent months. No indictments were issued and most reports scaled back the accusations against Franklin from alleged espionage to mishandling of classified evidence.
But the investigation burst back into prominence last Wednesday, when FBI agents made their first visit to AIPAC's Capitol Hill offices since August. Armed with a warrant, the agents seized computer files related to Rosen and Weissman and issued subpoenas to four senior officials at the lobby, requesting that they appear before a grand jury later this month in the Eastern District of Virginia.
Agents had copied Rosen's computer hard drive during their previous visit.
The four subpoenaed officials, who are considered witnesses, not targets, of the investigation, are AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr, Managing Director Richard Fishman, Communications Director Renee Rothstein and Research Director Rafi Danziger.
A Washington criminal justice expert said Friday that the issuing of the subpoenas suggested the FBI was "getting ready to indict."
AIPAC has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
"AIPAC has done nothing wrong. Neither AIPAC nor any member of our staff has broken any law, nor has AIPAC or its employees ever received information they believed was secret or classified. We continue to cooperate fully with the governmental authorities and believe any court of law or grand jury will conclude that AIPAC employees have always acted legally, properly and appropriately," AIPAC said in a statement.
"Despite the false and baseless allegations that have been reported, AIPAC will not be distracted from our central mission of supporting America's interests in the Middle East and advocating for a strong relationship with Israel," the statement said.