The Franklin Arrest

New York Sun Staff Editorial - May 5, 2005

When the name Lawrence Franklin first splashed onto the front pages during the Republican National Convention last August, Americans were assured by the Washington Post, the New York Times, CBS News, and others that he was a spy for Israel who would soon be arrested. News stories abounded about how this former Air Force colonel and Defense Intelligence Agency analyst might have been connected to a forgery that claimed Iraq tried to procure uranium from Niger. Or that he passed on code-word-sensitive intelligence to Ahmad Chalabi.

Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan and the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, called for open hearings to determine whether Mr. Franklin was following orders from higher-ranking Pentagon officials to pass secrets to the Jewish state. Juan Cole, a University of Michigan history professor, took time out from disparaging the liberation of Iraq to note on his Web blog, "Franklin's movements reveal the contours of a rightwing conspiracy of warmongering and aggression."

Well one of the benefits of living in a free society is that eventually such reports can be checked against a public record. Contrary to the first wave of stories and commentaries, federal authorities turned out not to have charged Mr. Franklin with espionage. At least not yet. The FBI said it arrested Mr. Franklin yesterday because he allegedly discussed classified material with two analysts from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee at a restaurant in Arlington, Va., on June 26, 2003. The classified material allegedly had to do with potential attacks on American forces in Iraq, not a draft policy paper on Iran, as had been originally reported.

As it turns out, Mr. Franklin had allegedly discussed classified material with foreign agents and members of the press and had allegedly kept some 83 classified documents in his home. To us this sounds more like Sandy Berger or John Deutch than it does, say, Jonathan Pollard. We bring this up not to disparage the press for reporting what was a hot story, but rather to question those who decided to leak the story in the first place and what purpose they were serving.

After all, an FBI investigation with all of its details of surveillance warrants and potential targets would qualify as classified information. Yet this did not stop reporters from finding government officials who would share some details. The truth is that what Mr. Franklin is being charged with here is something that goes on in Washington all the time. Any news reporter who seriously covers national security has sources who discuss classified material. That doesn't make their sources or the reporters spies.

Will the FBI investigate who gave the New York Times this week a classified assessment of American war fighting capabilities? When reporters, lobbyists, and foreign officials are leaked tidbits that advance the CIA or Foreign Service's agenda, nothing is said. But when the leaking is done by the bureaucracy's foes, reputations are ruined with whispers of treason. It's a moment to remember that those who petition the government, as Aipac and scores of other American organizations do, are protected by the exact same First Amendment prohibitions on the Congress that protect the press.

As for Mr. Franklin, he was nothing if not a staunch critic of an unelected bureaucracy he believed was too complacent about the threat posed by Iran and other terrorist states. On the basis of what is now known, he deserves an apology. It may turn out that the FBI will file additional charges against him. But until that happens, and it is looking much less likely that it will, then the burden is on his slanderers in the government to show their faces.