A Web of Intrigue - [The Franklin Case]

Time Magazine - September 13, 2004
Brian Bennett, Elaine Shannon and Adam Zagorin. With reporting by Timothy J. Burger

It was a hot, late August afternoon when the Iraqi exile got a call on his cell phone. Over the crackling line, the Iraqi says, the caller identified himself as Larry Franklin, an analyst for the Defense Department in Washington. Franklin rattled off a series of questions. He wanted to know if the Iraqi, who had spent the past decade working with Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress (I.N.C.), could recall whether anyone at the I.N.C. had discussed the U.S.'s ability to intercept and decode Iran's secret communications. The Iraqi, who knew Franklin's name but had never met him, was startled by the call. "How about discussing Iranian codes with a drunken American? Had anyone ever done that? Franklin wanted to know. For nearly half an hour, Franklin quizzed him about Pentagon officials and Iranian spycraft. "That was really scary", recalls the Iraqi. "I told him, 'I don't remember anything.'"

The phone call, which the Iraqi described to TIME last week, seems to be an indication that two complicated spy cases have become linked. Several weeks ago, according to federal law-enforcement officials, Franklin, who had been under investigation by the FBI for giving classified information to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), agreed to cooperate in a probe into whether the pro-Israel group was passing sensitive U.S. secrets to Israel. Franklin's call to the ex-I.N.C. man, who has provided TIME with credible information in the past, suggests that Franklin was also assisting the FBI in a separate inquiry into how highly classified details of America's ability to decode Iranian intelligence messages may have fallen into the hands of Chalabi's organization and been passed on to Iran in February. A U.S. law-enforcement official confirms that the Iraqi's account of the conversation is consistent with the types of calls Franklin was making on behalf of the FBI.

According to law-enforcement officials, Franklin began cooperating with the FBI after agents first confronted him with evidence that he had given classified material to AIPAC, one of Washington's most powerful lobbying organizations. Israel and AIPAC have denied the spy allegations; neither the Pentagon nor Franklin would comment. The law-enforcement officials say Franklin was persuaded in recent weeks to make "pretext calls" - scripted conversations monitored by FBI agents and designed to tease out incriminating evidence about other suspects. It was within this time frame that Franklin approached the ex-I.N.C. official who spoke to TIME.

The two investigations are among the most politically charged espionage cases in years. Israel and the I.N.C. are longtime allies of the U.S., though the CIA has for years warned that Chalabi was not to be trusted. Allegations of Israeli espionage have been a hot-button issue since American naval intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard was imprisoned for life in 1987 for passing U.S. military secrets to Israel. Ever since the Pollard affair, Israel has publicly insisted it no longer spies on the U.S. "I can tell you here very authoritatively, very categorically, Israel does not spy on the United States," Israel's U.S. ambassador, Daniel Ayalon said last week. "We do not gather information on our best friend and ally." Federal law-enforcement officials say they remain on the lookout for signs that Israelis still pursue U.S. secrets. A former congressional official told TIME that in the 1990s Israelis in Washington were known to routinely seek copies of classified documents such as secret portions of the annual Javits report, a U.S. compilation on arms sales.

National Security Adviser Condeleezza Rice and her deputy Stephen Hadley were informed of the FBI's probe into AIPAC at least two years ago, according to a U.S. official. But that did not hinder numerous contacts between AIPAC and top Administration officials as well as congressional leaders of both parties. The lobbying group derives its power from its backing among influential Jewish Americans. Just last May, President George W. Bush attended AIPAC's annual conference in Washington and thanked the organization for "serving the cause of America" and bringing to public attention the threat of Iran's development of nuclear weapons.

At that time, the FBI was already deep into its investigation of AIPAC. A former U.S. official interviewed by the FBI more than a year ago told TIME that the bureau sought information on key AIPAC personnel, their meetings with White House and other national-security officials in Washington and even details about their personal lives. At one point, the FBI was surveilling a meeting between an Israeli diplomat and an AIPAC official when the Pentagon's Franklin suddenly appeared, igniting concerns. Franklin, a former Air Force Reserve officer, served briefly in the U.S. military attaché's office in Israel in the late 1990s. Since the summer of 2001, he has worked as an Iran expert for Douglas Feith, the Pentagon's third ranking official, a neoconservative long in favor of tougher measures against Iran. In 2001 Franklin and a Pentagon colleague were dispatched to Rome for a meeting with Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian arms dealer who had been a key figure in the 1980s' Iran-contra scandal. They were seeking intelligence on Iran from him. But the CIA has long considered Ghorbanifar unreliable, and the Bush Administration later cut off the contacts.

According to a former U.S. government source, the material Franklin passed to AIPAC included a draft of a National Security Presidential Directive dealing with U.S. policy on Iran. The document, a source says, had gone through several versions without ever achieving the status of official U.S. policy because of deep disagreements within the Administration over how to cope with Iran. A source familiar with multiple drafts of the document said it was a "glorified Op-Ed looking at how engagement [with Iran] doesn't work and how the U.S. needs a more robust strategy." A former senior U.S. official who also saw the drafts told TIME the directive did not explicitly call for regime change in Tehran and left open the possibility of cooperation with the Iranians on matters of mutual interest.

Meanwhile, a former case officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency says that when he was questioned in the I.N.C. case, the FBI seemed frustrated in that investigation. That case officer, who worked alongside I.N.C intelligence gatherers at the time of the alleged breach, says he was interrogated and polygraphed by the FBI. He contended to TIME that the allegations against the I.N.C. are baseless and that the bureau is "grasping at straws." U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement officials insist that U.S. intercepts of Iranian communications prove that secrets about U.S. code-breaking were gravely breached and that the only question is, Who is to blame?

So far, no one, including Franklin, is known to have been charged in either case. In the meantime, AIPAC and its allies have launched a p.r. blitz, urging backers to bolster the group by contacting members of Congress with expressions of support. Whatever happens in the case, many in the FBI believe their ability to get to the bottom of the matter has been seriously compromised by the revelation of Franklin's name and other details leaking out about the scandal. "We may never know what really happened or how big and wide it was," says a bureau official. Using Franklin to make more cold calls on the I.N.C. case isn't a promising tactic either.

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