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FBI Questions Israeli Lobbyists in Spying Probe

Agents are trying to determine whether a Pentagon analyst gave classified information about Iran that was passed on to Jerusalem.

August 31, 2004|Richard B. Schmitt and Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The FBI has interviewed an influential foreign affairs specialist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as part of its investigation into whether a Pentagon analyst improperly leaked classified information to Israel, sources said Monday.

In addition, officials in Jerusalem identified a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington who had met with the Pentagon aide at the center of the probe but who denied any wrongdoing.

The disclosures came during an unfolding espionage investigation as federal agents try to determine whether Larry Franklin, a veteran Iran analyst at the Pentagon, disclosed classified material on that country to AIPAC executives, who then passed it along to the Israeli government.

The lobbying group and Israeli officials -- who have expressed a steadily mounting concern about Iran's expanding nuclear capability -- have strenuously denied wrongdoing. Franklin has not responded to requests for comment. The Pentagon's third-ranking official, who oversees the office where Franklin works, was briefed by FBI agents during the weekend.

The case has focused attention on AIPAC, one of Washington's most potent political forces, and has raised questions about how the U.S. shares information with allies.

Sources said that within the last week, the FBI has interviewed two AIPAC employees who are said to have met with Franklin and received the information that agents think may have been compromised.

One of those interviewed, Steve Rosen, is the group's director of foreign policy issues; the FBI also interviewed a senior Middle East analyst for AIPAC, Keith Weissman. Neither could be reached Monday. An AIPAC spokesman declined to comment.

Rosen, a onetime professor of international relations and a former scholar at Rand Corp., is credited with turning the lobbying muscle of AIPAC toward the executive branch in the 1980s in an effort to build on the successes it enjoyed in Congress in fighting for foreign aid to Israel.

Rosen is known as an ardent and well-connected advocate. In a 1982 staff memo, he once compared the work of an effective lobby to "a night flower: It thrives in the dark and dies in the sun."

It was not known what Rosen or Weissman told the FBI in the recent interviews. But sources said the men thought the information they received from Franklin was publicly available and that none of it was classified.

Franklin, a longtime official with the Defense Intelligence Agency, changed jobs three years ago, joining 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 Douglas J. Feith, Defense undersecretary for policy, who is the department's third-ranking official.

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 have said he was influential in high-level Pentagon policy debates.

Since revelations of the FBI investigation late Friday, federal agents have been scrambling to brief administration and other officials about the status of the probe, which began last year.

According to one administration official, Feith was briefed by the FBI during the weekend and was asked whether Franklin was authorized to release the information in question.

No arrests have been made in the case.

Some officials have said that publicity about the case also may have hampered the ability of investigators to pursue certain leads and may have alerted other potential suspects.

In Jerusalem, Israeli officials told Associated Press that a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington had met with Franklin.

But the diplomat, identified as Naor Gilon, head of the political department at the Israeli Embassy, denied that he had done anything improper.

"My hands are clean," Gilon, who was in Israel celebrating his son's bar mitzvah when the scandal broke, told the Israeli newspaper Maariv. "I have nothing to hide -- I played by the rules."

Israeli media reports also said Gilon feared he would no longer be able to work effectively in Israel's embassy in the U.S. "People will be afraid to talk to me now," he said.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom reiterated Israeli government denials that any spying had taken place.

"It looks like a press cock-and-bull story," he told reporters in Jerusalem. "Israel wouldn't do anything to harm our best and closest friend, the U.S."

An Israeli Embassy official said he could not confirm reports from Jerusalem that Gilon and Franklin had met previously during the course of their work.

"Like other embassies here, we don't comment on the meetings our people have with their counterparts in the U.S. government," the official said. "But given the intimacy of relations between Israel and the United States, we have an ongoing dialogue with counterparts on all issues affecting us, including Iran."

Others who follow the politically important relationship between Israel and the United States described AIPAC as one of the most powerful and influential lobbying groups in Washington -- one well known for its high-level contacts within the administration and its ability to mobilize pressure on Capitol Hill. The group claims a membership of 65,000 nationally.

Contact between a Pentagon official and an AIPAC executive would be nothing unusual, those familiar with the lobbying group said.

"That's the part of the story that rings true," said Ami Eden, national editor of the prominent Jewish weekly newspaper the Forward. "Assuming nothing unlawful happened, it would make sense that a Pentagon official frustrated with [U.S.] policy on Iran would go to AIPAC to do an end run as a way to pressure the administration to do more on Iran."

Times staff writers Laura King in Jerusalem and John Hendren in Washington contributed to this report.

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