Pressure Groups and US Middle East Policy
FBI steps up AIPAC espionage probe
Officials to appear in front of grand jury, but pro-Israel lobby group says it has done nothing wrong.
The FBI has stepped up its investigation into alleged Israeli espionage against the US, United Press International reported last week, and in particular the operations of the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, also know as AIPAC.
The FBI raided AIPAC’s offices in early December. Time magazine reported that the raid, the second in four months, was “seeking evidence to determine whether two AIPAC officials received classified information from a former Pentagon analyst and passed the data to Israeli government officials.” The FBI had a search warrant for “the files of officials Steven Rosen, AIPAC director of foreign policy issues, and AIPAC Iran expert Keith Weissman.” The FBI also served grand jury subpoenas on four senior AIPAC officials.
The Forward reported that staffers at other pro-Israel organizations believe that the subpoenas “severely undermined [AIPAC]’s claim [see below] that it was the victim of a few rogue investigators.” (Registration required.)
‘It’s okay to say once that the FBI is ticked at AIPAC, but a grand jury with subpoenas – that’s not someone running a grudge campaign,’ said an official with a major Jewish organization.
‘Clearly, somebody has thought this through. And they are looking for something.’ Steve Pomerantz, a former FBI investigator who consults for Jewish organizations sounded a similar note. He said the nature of the subpoenas suggests that FBI investigators know what they’re looking for.
‘This is not a fishing expedition,’ he said. ‘It’s clear to me they have some specific information which is leading them in a specific direction.’
Time reported recently that government sources said the investigations into AIPAC had been ongoing for about two years, looking into allegations that the group was “obtaining sensitive data and passing it along to the Israeli government.” United Press International reported that the initial investigations began when the FBI discovered “new, ‘massive’ Israeli spying operations in the East Coast, including New York and New Jersey.”
It was during surveillance of certain Israeli diplomats that the FBI became aware of Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin.
Mr. Franklin, an Iranian expert at the Pentagon, appeared at a lunch meeting between Israeli diplomats and AIPAC officials. The New York Times reported in August of 2004 that the FBI had confronted Franklin about allegedly sharing sensitive US documents on Iran policy with AIPAC. As a consequence, he agreed to work with the FBI in their investigation into the activities of AIPAC and others.
The Washington Post reported that the FBI said the Franklin investigation was part of a broader probe into whether officials in the Defense Department had given sensitive documents to AIPAC and Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi who many in the Pentagon had reportedly favored before the invasion of Iraq to run the country after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Franklin, however, suddenly stopped cooperating with the FBI in mid-September after he fired his public defender lawyer and hired well-known defence lawyer Plato Cacheris. The Washington Times reported that the FBI was “hopping mad” at this move, and that was when it decided to pursue a more aggressive course of action, including a second raid and subpoenas.
Meanwhile, a few days after the FBI conducted their second raid on the AIPAC offices earlier this month, The Jerusalem Post reported that AIPAC was allegedly the target of an FBI sting. The Israeli daily Maariv reports on Thursday that “a senior Jewish source” told the paper that the FBI’s investigation of AIPAC was “an improper sting operation aimed at targeting the organization.”
According to the source, Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin had come to the FBI’s attention during an investigation totally unrelated to AIPAC. During the course of this investigation, investigators discovered that he maintained a sporadic acquaintanceship with some senior AIPAC officials in Washington. At some point he was pressured and perhaps even coerced into cooperating with an FBI sting operation against AIPAC, in return for leniency for some minor technical infractions he may have committed, such as careless and improper storage and handling of classified information.
The charges were not entirely new. Time magazine had reported in early September that Franklin had been asked to make a series of “scripted” phone calls to get possible evidence on those being investigated.
But the Washington Post wrote in September, and the American Prospect in November, that more than anything else the “Franklin affair” revealed the “escalating fight over Iran policy” in the Bush administration.
The Post reported that one side of the fight are neocons who want to “bring down” the government of Iran, and on the other side are intelligence officials who “view the neocons as too close to Israel.” The Prospect alleged that the classified document – a draft copy of a National Security Presidential Directive – that Franklin wanted to give to AIPAC officials “concerned a controversial proposal by Pentagon hard-liners [neocons] to destabilize Iran.” The proposal had been turned down by the White House.
Was it to this end that Franklin was allegedly observed by the FBI passing the draft NSPD on Iran to AIPAC? Was he trying to inform AIPAC, or Israel, about the contents of the draft NSPD? Or rather, and perhaps more plausibly, was he trying to enlist the powerful Washington lobbying organization in advocating for a Iran-destabilization policy? In other words, is the Franklin case really about espionage, or is it a glimpse into the ugly sausage-making process by which Middle East policy gets decided in Washington and, in particular, in the Bush administration?
Meanwhile, Israel’s Army Radio reported this week that the US has accused Israeli defense officials of “industrial espionage.” Also, Channel 2 TV in Israel reported that Washington was “demanding the resignation of the top official in Israel’s Defense Ministry, Director-General Amos Yaron, for failing to disclose a weapons transaction with China.”
‘These are not accusations, but rather claims about “aggressive collection,” ’ Rachel Naidek Ashkenazi, a Defense Ministry spokeswoman, told Israeli radio. ‘And this regards information that isn’t classified.’
Ms. Ashkenazi acknowledged, however, that some of that information gathered by Israeli officials still is “protected by US officials, creating a gray area that has become the source of friction.”
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