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Report on Iran Key to Spying Inquiry

Investigators are looking closely at Pentagon policy analyst Larry Franklin's relationships with advocates for Israel.

August 29, 2004|Mark Mazzetti and Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The man at the center of an FBI investigation into possible Israeli espionage in Washington is a career Pentagon employee, a colonel in the Air Force reserves and a national security analyst who at the end of the Cold War taught himself Farsi and refashioned himself as an expert on Iran, officials said Saturday.

The FBI is trying to determine whether he is also a spy.

U.S. officials confirmed Saturday that the target of the investigation was Larry Franklin, the Pentagon's top Iran policy analyst and a confidant of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and Douglas J. Feith, who, as undersecretary for policy, was the Pentagon's third-ranking official.

The FBI is trying to ascertain whether Franklin turned over a draft presidential directive on policy toward Iran last year to two people affiliated with the Washington-based American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which may have given the information to Israel.

Officials are concerned because the directive was still being debated by U.S. policymakers at the time, possibly putting the Israeli government in a position to influence the final document, officials said. U.S. policy toward Iran is vital to Israel, which is gravely concerned about the expanding nuclear capability of the country run by Shiite Muslim clerics.

The probe, which is being handled by the FBI's counter- espionage division, might not result in espionage charges against Franklin.

Instead, the Pentagon analyst could be charged with lesser offenses such as improper disclosure or mishandling of classified information. Or he could be exonerated.

A U.S. official with knowledge of the case expressed doubts Saturday that Franklin's alleged actions rose to the level of espionage. Instead, he said it was more likely that Franklin, who maintains close ties with Israeli officials, passed documents to Israel without knowing the seriousness of his actions.

"From everything I've seen, the guy's not a spy," the official said. "The guy's an idiot."

According to the official, the closeness of the U.S. relationship with Israel means that top officials of the two nations often share sensitive information. Nevertheless, Franklin should have known what information was and was not permissible to be shared, he said.

"We knew this guy had the relationship for a while, and he shared some stuff beyond what he should be sharing," the official said.

Franklin did not respond to phone messages Saturday seeking comment.

Sources said that Franklin, a longtime official with the Defense Intelligence Agency, three years ago joined the Pentagon's Office of Near East and South Asian Affairs, the group charged with developing the Pentagon's policy for the Middle East. The office is run by William J. Luti, who in turn reports to Feith.

Since joining Luti's office, Franklin has been the Pentagon's leading Iran policy analyst, a job that took on greater importance after President Bush included Iran in his "axis of evil" and his appointees at the Pentagon advocated a hard line toward Iran.

As a member of the Air Force reserves, Franklin is assigned to a DIA reserve unit based in Washington.

A Pentagon statement released Friday characterized Franklin as a "desk officer" with no significant influence on U.S. policy. Yet some who have worked with him offer a different picture, saying he was very influential in high-level Pentagon policy debates.

"You're not talking about someone toiling away in the bowels of the U.S. government," said a former Pentagon official who worked for Feith until last year and spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Franklin was the go-to guy on Iran issues for Wolfowitz and Feith."

In addition, the former official characterized Franklin as an ideological ally of Wolfowitz, Feith and Luti. The three men were among the Bush administration's leading advocates of war with Iraq, and the Middle East policy office and the Office of Special Plans, both of which reported to Luti, produced analyses bolstering the U.S. case against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

"Their analysis wasn't whether we should invade Iraq, but whether we should do it on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday," the former official said.

FBI investigators fear that Franklin -- given his influential position and high-level security clearance -- may have been in a position to compromise government information about Iraq and the U.S. war effort.

Sometime after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Franklin took a secret trip to Rome with Harold Rhode, another civilian official in the Pentagon, to meet with Iranian dissidents who reportedly promised to provide information to them that would aid the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.

One of the dissidents the pair spoke to was Manucher Ghorbanifar, an arms dealer and former Iranian spy who was a central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s.

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