Ron Kampeas and Matthew E. Berger - JTA - May 4, 2005
ALEXANDRIA, Va. - Criminal charges against a Pentagon analyst, for allegedly leaking classified Iraq war information to two top officials at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, raise new questions about whom the FBI is targeting and whether the pro-Israel powerhouse will be harmed as the case unfolds.
Lawrence Franklin, who turned himself in for arrest Wednesday, was accused in an FBI criminal complaint of disclosing classified information "related to potential attacks on United States forces in Iraq" to two U.S. civilians over lunch in an Arlington, Va., restaurant on June 26, 2003.
Franklin's two interlocutors, identified in the document only as "U.S. Person 1 and U.S. Person 2," are Steve Rosen, AIPAC's policy director, and Keith Weissman, its senior Iran analyst, JTA has established. AIPAC fired the two last month in an apparent bid to distance itself from the case.
Read as a whole, the criminal complaint contained some good news for AIPAC. It suggests that beyond the allegations against Rosen and Weissman, AIPAC as an organization had no involvement in leaking any information.
"AIPAC has been advised by the government that it is not a target of the investigation," a source close to the organization told JTA.
On the other hand, the headlines could hinder AIPAC's efforts to project a "back-to-business" face to grass-roots supporters and Washington powerbrokers weeks before its annual policy conference, and at a time when it is trying to build support for Israel ahead of Israel's planned withdrawal this summer from the Gaza Strip.
The policy conference is AIPAC's annual show of strength, culminating in a dinner expected to be attended by some 5,000 people at which AIPAC leaders shout out the names of dozens of congressmen and Cabinet officials present - nearly 200 last year. If a significantly lower number show up this year, it could be embarrassing.
Franklin, an Iran analyst who lives in Kearneysville, W. Va., was released on a $100,000 bond after appearing at U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va. A preliminary hearing was set for May 27.
"He intends to plead not guilty" and expects to be vindicated at trial, said his attorney, John Thorpe Richards.
The criminal charge sheet was the first official accounting of a case that first made headlines last August, when FBI agents raided AIPAC's Washington headquarters and confiscated files belonging to Rosen and Weissman.
"The information Franklin disclosed relating to potential attacks upon U.S. forces in Iraq could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of a foreign country," special agent Catherine Hanna said in drafting the complaint. The damage, she said, could arise from "jeopardizing the viability of the sources and methods."
The information was from a document classified as "top secret," Hanna said.
While the June 2003 lunch appears to be the linchpin of the criminal charges, there are other allegations, including that Franklin leaked classified information to journalists and to an unidentified "foreign official," and that he kept three decades' worth of classified information on his computer hard disk at home.
Reports have suggested that Franklin also met with an Israeli Embassy official. The reference to a "foreign official" might point in that direction.
However, the FBI has not gotten in touch with the Israeli Embassy, representatives say, and Israeli officials continue to maintain that they would never participate in illicit information gathering in the United States.
"Israel does not carry out any operation in the United States that would be liable, God forbid, to harm its closest ally," Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Television. "Therefore all the brouhaha around this matter has nothing to do with the State of Israel."
The United States, he added, "is a nation with which we conduct very intimate ties, with exchanges of the most classified kinds of information. So anyone who thinks we were involved - this is completely bogus."
The complaint suggests answers to two major questions that have surrounded the investigation: Who is the target? And to what degree is AIPAC in danger?
The question of a target arose after last year's raids, when it emerged that agents had watched Rosen, Weissman and Franklin chatting over a meal at Tivoli in June 2003. Was the FBI agent in the restaurant following Franklin, or Rosen and Weissman?
The arrest Wednesday lends support to the theory that Franklin had been the target of an investigation that reportedly was at least a year old at that lunch meeting.
Franklin's enthusiasm for a tough line against Iran had drawn the attention of colleagues in the Pentagon.
JTA previously has reported that Franklin had been under scrutiny since he allegedly met in December 2001 with former Iranian spy and arms merchant Manucher Ghorbanifar, who was on a CIA "burn list" of people who could not be contacted, according to intelligence community sources.
AIPAC could take heart from the fact that the criminal complaint did not mention the organization, or even suggest any organizational affiliation for the two "U.S. Persons" Franklin met with.
Still, the complaint raised at least as many questions as it answered:
The complaint makes clear that the exchange in the restaurant was "verbal." It's unclear what, if any, charges could be brought against Rosen and Weissman for simply listening to Franklin unload.
On the other hand, the FBI had a clear interest in Rosen and Weissman, evidenced by the August raid at AIPAC headquarters and another one in December, and by the appearance earlier this year of top AIPAC staffers before a federal grand jury.
It was information arising out of the grand jury encounters that led AIPAC to fire the two men, AIPAC has said.
Rosen's lawyer said in a statement that no documents were exchanged, which dovetails with the FBI's claim that the exchange was verbal.
"Steve Rosen never solicited, received or passed on any classified documents from Larry Franklin, and Mr. Franklin will never be able to say otherwise," Rosen's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, said in a statement.
One answer could be that the FBI and Justice Department have been burned by reporting that depicts the case as a politically motivated jeremiad against Jewish lobbyists and/or neoconservatives such as Franklin. Indictments often are sealed, but a criminal complaint allows the FBI to explain at length why it feels charges are justified.
A former FBI official said the complaint suggests a larger investigation, but gives few clues about where the probe starts and ends.
"My best estimate is this was part of an already existing investigation, and from their perspective, they got lucky," the former official said. "They were either following Franklin or they were following these two guys," he said, referring to Rosen and Weissman.