Officials Say Publicity Derailed Secrets Inquiry

By DAVID JOHNSTON and ERIC SCHMITT

The New York Times

August 30, 2004

WASHINGTON, Aug. 29 - The Pentagon official under suspicion of turning over classified information to Israel began cooperating with federal agents several weeks ago and was preparing to lead the authorities to contacts inside the Israeli government when the case became publicly known last week, government officials said Sunday.

The disclosure of the inquiry late on Friday by CBS News revealed what had been for nearly a year a covert national security investigation conducted by the F.B.I., according to the officials, who said that news reports about the inquiry compromised important investigative steps, like the effort to follow the trail back to the Israelis.

As a result, several areas of the case remain murky, the officials said. One main uncertainty is the legal status of Lawrence A. Franklin, the lower-level Pentagon policy analyst who the authorities believe passed the Israelis a draft presidential policy directive related to Iran.

No arrest in the case is believed to be imminent, in part because prosecutors have not yet clearly established whether Mr. Franklin broke the law. But the officials said there was evidence that he turned the classified material over to officials at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group. Officials of the group are thought to have then passed the information to Israeli intelligence.

The lobbying group and Israel have denied that they engaged in any wrongdoing. Efforts to reach Mr. Franklin or his lawyer have not been successful. Reporters who went to Mr. Franklin's residence in West Virginia on Sunday were asked by a local sheriff not to approach the house. Friends of Mr. Franklin's, like Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, said the accusations against him were baseless.

As the overall outline of the case emerged more clearly, doubts about some aspects of it seemed to stand out in sharper relief. Investigators, the officials said, may never fully understand the role of two officials for the lobbying group who they believe were in contact with Mr. Franklin. Nor are they likely to be able to completely determine whether Israel regarded the entire matter as a formal intelligence operation or as a casual relationship that Mr. Franklin himself may not have fully understood.

Investigators do not know, for example, whether Israeli intelligence officers "tasked" intermediaries at the group to seek specific information for Mr. Franklin to obtain, which would make the case more serious. Officials said some investigators speculated that Israeli officials might have passively accepted whatever classified material that officials for the lobbying group happened to get from Mr. Franklin.

Moreover, Mr. Franklin appears to be an unlikely candidate for intelligence work. Although he was involved with Middle East policy, a defense official said Sunday that he had no impact on United States policy and few dealings with senior Pentagon officials, including the deputy defense secretary, Paul D. Wolfowitz.

At one point in the run-up to the Iraq war in early 2003, Mr. Franklin was brought in to help arrange meetings between Mr. Wolfowitz and Shiite and Sunni clerics across the United States, a defense official said. But he was never regarded as an influential figure.

"He was at the bottom of the food chain, at the grunt level," a senior defense official said. Another defense official said Mr. Franklin "had a certain expertise and had access to things, but he wasn't a policy maker."

Still, as a desk officer, especially one with a background at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Mr. Franklin would have had top-secret security clearance. That would have given him access to most of the nation's most-sensitive intelligence about Iran, including that relating to its nuclear program, Pentagon officials said. He would also have had access to diplomatic cables and drafts of confidential documents about the administration's policies toward Iran.

While the facts of the case remained unclear and contradictory, the inquiry has stirred deeply emotional responses. On Sunday, in an event held on the eve of the Republican National Convention, Bernice Manocherian, the president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, described the allegations against her group as "outrageous, as well as baseless."

In a speech in New York to Jewish Republicans, Ms. Manocherian said, "We will not allow innuendo or false allegations against Aipac to distract us from our central mission." The event was sponsored by the group, along with the Republican Jewish Coalition and the United Jewish Communities.

Even so, officials who discussed the case on Sunday, including three who have been briefed on it recently, said it began as a highly confidential inquiry into what counterintelligence agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation regarded as a serious allegation of possible spying that appeared to go well beyond the extensive information-sharing relationship that exists between the United States and Israel.

The F.B.I. obtained warrants from a special federal court for surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and for months kept tabs on Mr. Franklin.

In an article on its Web site on Sunday, Newsweek magazine reported that the bureau first learned of Mr. Franklin when agents observed him walking into a lunch in Washington between a lobbyist for the American Israeli group and an Israeli embassy official.

American officials would not comment on the report. Israeli officials said Sunday that the lobbying group's main point of contact in Washington was Naor Gilon, who is described in a biography on the Israeli Embassy's Web site as the minister of political affairs. Israeli officials said Mr. Gilon had no involvement in intelligence matters. Efforts to reach him on Sunday were not successful.

Mr. Franklin began cooperating with agents this month in an arrangement that is still not completely understood. He agreed to help the authorities monitor his meetings with his contacts at the lobbying group. It is not clear whether the authorities in exchange agreed to grant him any form of leniency.

Current and former defense officials said this weekend that Mr. Franklin worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency for most of his career in the government until 2001, when he was detailed to the Pentagon's policy office, headed by Douglas J. Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy. Mr. Franklin is one of about 1,500 people who work for Mr. Feith.

When he transferred to the Pentagon policy office, Mr. Franklin was assigned to the Northern Gulf directorate to work on issues related to Iran. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that office was expanded and renamed the Office of Special Plans, and did most of the policy work on Iraq in the run-up to the war. Mr. Franklin was a part of that office but continued to work on Iran.

In his job, Mr. Franklin is one of two Iran desk officers in the Pentagon's Near Eastern and South Asian Bureau, one of six regional policy sections. The Near Eastern office is supervised by William J. Luti, a deputy under secretary of defense, who also oversaw the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, which conducted some early policy work for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

According to former colleagues, Mr. Franklin was originally a Soviet specialist at the D.I.A. who transferred to the agency's Middle East division in the early 1990's. He learned Farsi and became an Iran analyst, developing extensive contacts within the community of Iranians who opposed the Tehran government.

"He was very close to the anti-Iranian dissidents," one former colleague said. "He was a good analyst of the Iranian political scene, but he was also someone who would go off on his own."