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Policy Wonk in Spy Probe

Pentagon colleagues recall Larry Franklin, suspected of passing information to Israel, as a 'journeyman analyst' often buried in papers.

September 05, 2004|Mark Mazzetti | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — For two decades as an intelligence analyst and policy wonk at the Pentagon, Larry Franklin built his career tracking threats.

He monitored the collapse of the Soviet Union and became obsessed with the growing threat of Middle East terrorism that came in its wake. He spent long hours behind piles of papers and books in Pentagon cubicles. And in foreign capitals and Washington restaurants, he met with diplomats and dissidents to exchange information, gather intelligence and trade gossip.

It is during one of those meetings, however, that U.S. officials question whether Franklin may have crossed a line by allegedly passing a classified document about U.S. policy on Iran to members of a pro-Israel lobbying group, who in turn may have given it to Israeli officials in Washington.

With this, the once anonymous Washington bureaucrat -- described by colleagues, friends and critics as diligent and thoughtful yet often unreliable and disorganized -- became involved in a long-running FBI probe into Israeli espionage in the nation's capital.

FBI officials have not sought charges, but sources have indicated the scope of the investigation includes a top diplomat at the Israeli embassy; high-ranking executives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful and respected lobbying organization; and the Pentagon office in which Franklin works as an Iran analyst.

Unlike convicted 1980s spy Jonathan Jay Pollard, who worked as a Navy analyst, Franklin is not suspected of being a paid agent.

Franklin has not responded to requests for interviews. Pentagon officials said he remained a full employee of the Defense Department.

The classified document that officials said might have been handed over was a draft version of a national security presidential directive, or NSPD, on Iran. When signed by the president, an NSPD is a formal statement of U.S. policy toward a specific country.

At the time of Franklin's alleged encounter with the Israelis, however, senior U.S. officials in Washington were still debating the draft document. In recent days, FBI officials have said that such a document in Israeli hands could have given the country improper influence in the U.S. debate over Iran -- a country Israeli officials consider to be a major threat.

Many U.S. officials familiar with the investigation said there was little hard evidence that Franklin intended to commit espionage and no hint that he was paid for whatever his role might have been. There was more evidence, they said, that Franklin might have foolishly handed over the document without understanding the gravity of his actions.

In addition, current and former officials said that the draft document, which originated at the Pentagon's Near East and South Asian Affairs, or NESA, office where Franklin worked -- yet which was not drafted by Franklin -- contained little in the way of sensitive secrets that had not been reported by the media already.

"It was sort of like a lengthy op-ed, arguing what U.S. policy toward Iran should be," said a former Pentagon official familiar with the contents of the document.

At the same time, the former official said the draft NSPD advocated measures the U.S. could take to help destabilize the regime in Tehran, such as more radio transmissions to the country and bolstering U.S. contacts with Iranian dissidents.

The document argued that the U.S. practice of diplomatic engagement with officials in Tehran was essentially a failure. During the early months of 2003, when the document was being drafted, White House and State Department officials had been meeting secretly with Iranian diplomats in Geneva, an effort to improve lines of communication between the two nations.

After more than two years of debate among top U.S. officials, an NSPD on Iran has yet to be agreed upon by top officials and signed by the president.

According to documents released by the Pentagon, Franklin joined the Army as an active duty soldier in 1969, transferring to the reserves in February 1972. He switched services nearly a decade later, joining the Air Force Reserve as a captain in 1981 with a specialty in intelligence.

While working at the Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA, Franklin became an expert in Soviet counterespionage. As the Soviet threat receded with the end of the Cold War, Franklin began studying Farsi and refashioned himself an Iran expert.

He was promoted to colonel in May 2000. Colleagues said that he fulfilled many of his annual two-week military commitments by serving as a defense attache at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.

During the late 1980s, as Iran continued to fight a war with Iraq over disputed territory, Franklin worked on Middle East affairs in the intelligence shop of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, providing the chiefs of each branch of the U.S. military with intelligence analysis on worldwide threats.

Franklin's colleagues from that time said his work didn't stand out in either a positive or negative way.

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