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The Evidence, Please

September 02, 2004

It used to be that the FBI enjoyed a fearsome reputation for ferreting out traitors and spies. But in recent years, its selective persecution of such figures as physicist Wen Ho Lee and Richard Jewell, the security guard wrongly accused in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing, has exposed a bureau too often better at making headlines than convictions.

It's useful to keep those travesties in mind as Washington is convulsed by reports of a new FBI spy investigation. About two decades after Jonathan Pollard, a civilian naval analyst, was arrested and convicted as an Israeli spy, mid-level Pentagon official Larry Franklin is said to be under suspicion of supplying classified documents on Iran policy to the American Israeli Political Action Committee, which allegedly handed them over to Israel. The committee and Israel vehemently deny that anything of the kind occurred.

Central to the controversy is that Franklin's boss is leading neoconservative William J. Luti, who reports to the even more leading neoconservative Defense Undersecretary for Policy Douglas J. Feith, who, in turn, reports to uber-neocon and architect of the Iraq war, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

Needless to say, this web of connections has sent conspiracy theorists who think U.S. foreign policy is being controlled by Israel into a frenzy.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 08, 2004 Home Edition California Part B Page 10 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Spying investigation -- An editorial Thursday incorrectly gave the full name of AIPAC as the American Israeli Political Action Committee. The acronym stands for American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

As exciting as this story line may be, the evidence that has emerged in the last week also suggests a more prosaic conclusion: Franklin may be guilty mostly of carelessness.

If Franklin showed or handed over a document to the Israelis, the charge against him -- if there ever is one -- probably will be mishandling classified information, a generic crime that the FBI could pin on many government officials.

U.S. intelligence agents say Israel is indeed involved in extensive spying operations in this country. But the United States also shares intelligence freely with Israel, and there has been no indication that Franklin disclosed secret sources or methods.

Further, Franklin would not have committed a transgression just by meeting with officials from the American Israeli Political Action Committee or the Israeli Embassy. On the contrary, it was his job to seek out information on the Middle East.

Maybe the FBI has come up with damning evidence that Franklin is something other than the bland civil servant he appears to be. But so far, the bureau's most amazing feat is to have made Franklin interesting.

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