WASHINGTON - Federal agents have begun asking reporters about any conversations they had with a former Pentagon analyst who has been charged with illegally disclosing military secrets, senior government officials said on Friday.
The interviews by the Federal Bureau of Investigation are starting with four reporters, among them at least one newspaper journalist and others whose work has been published on the Internet, the officials said. They would not identify any of the journalists and said the number could increase.
The interviews represent the latest twist in a convoluted inquiry that appears to be evolving from a spy case into a broader investigation into the possible disclosure of classified information by the analyst, Lawrence A. Franklin.
The journalists whom the agents want to question wrote articles that investigators are said to believe are based on classified information that Mr. Franklin obtained while he was working at the Defense Department. Investigators have searched news databases and compiled the list of journalists based in part on that research.
So far, the reporters are being approached on a voluntary basis, which means they are under no legal obligation to answer questions. But reporters could be subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., that has been convened in the case.
The officials who disclosed the interviews have been briefed on the details of the inquiry, but declined to be identified because much of the investigation is itself classified.
The interviews are said to focus on questions about what Mr. Franklin might have told the journalists. Ordinarily, it is not illegal for a reporter to possess classified information, but it could be a crime for a person with a security clearance to give such information to anyone not authorized to receive it.
Last week, federal prosecutors charged Mr. Franklin with disclosing highly classified defense information about potential attacks on American forces in Iraq. The affidavit that accompanied the charges hinted that journalists might fall under scrutiny in the case. It said Mr. Franklin "knowingly disclosed, without authorization, classified U.S. government information to a foreign official and members of the media."
In addition, the complaint charged Mr. Franklin with one count of passing the information to two Americans who were not identified in the government's papers. But government officials confirmed that the men were former staff members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group with close ties to the Bush administration.
Neither of the men, Steven Rosen, formerly director of foreign policy issues, or Keith Weissman, formerly senior Middle East analyst, has been charged. Abbe Lowell, a lawyer for Mr. Rosen, has said his client never received any classified documents from Mr. Franklin. Mr. Weissman's lawyer, John N. Nassikas, has not discussed the case.
The lobbying group, also known as Aipac, initially defended Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman. But last month it dismissed them for reasons that were unexplained, although it is believed to be an effort to distance the organization from the investigation. Aipac itself is not thought to have engaged in any wrongdoing, the officials said.
Mr. Franklin is free on $100,000 bond. A preliminary hearing is set for May 27, but officials said prosecutors were likely to indict him soon on multiple charges instead of the single count in the initial complaint.
Plato Cacheris, a lawyer for Mr. Franklin, would not discuss the case. But he said a trial would show that "Mr. Franklin was, and is, a loyal American citizen."
Lawyers familiar with prosecution tactics said that an indictment against Mr. Franklin would increase pressure on him to cooperate with the government's investigation of Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman.
At one point last summer, Mr. Franklin had agreed to help the government with the investigation before ending his cooperation when it became evident that prosecutors wanted to charge him with a crime. During that time, he made several telephone calls to possible subjects in the case, including one to Mr. Weissman, according to people who have been officially briefed on the case. The call was surreptitiously monitored and recorded by F.B.I. agents.
In the conversation with Mr. Weissman, Mr. Franklin said he had learned that Iran was seeking to encourage or engage in attacks against Israelis in northern Iraq, people who have been officially briefed on the case said. They said that Mr. Weissman told Mr. Rosen of the conversation and that the two men are believed to have passed the information to an Israeli official who was an intelligence officer. It is not clear whether the information was based on actual information or was fabricated to lure the two Aipac officials into incriminating themselves.