It was a sizzling June afternoon in 2003 when the Pentagon’s top Iran analyst, Lawrence Franklin, walked in off the hot pavement into the cool recesses of the Tivoli restaurant in Arlington, Virginia, and offered to commit espionage against the United States—and the FBI recorded every word.
It wasn’t just serendipity that caught this traitor in the act. Our G-men were already recording the conversation among three diners—Naor Gilon, head of the political department at the Israeli embassy in Washington; Steve Rosen, the spark plug behind the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its hugely successful lobbying operation; and Keith Weissman, AIPAC’s Iran specialist—as part of an ongoing investigation into Israeli spying in the United States. All very routine, just another day in the work of the FBI’s counterintelligence unit. However, as Michael Isikoff reported in Newsweek, Franklin’s abrupt appearance shocked them: “Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, in the description of one intelligence official,” Franklin “walked in to the lunch out of the blue.” The agents listened as Franklin proceeded to divulge the contents of a U.S. government document marked “top secret,” which raised the possibility of attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq by forces allied with Iran.
The FBI placed Franklin under close surveillance, tracking his every move. “At one point,” Isikoff reported, they
watched him allegedly attempt to pass a classified U.S. policy document on Iran to one of the surveillance targets, according to a U.S. intelligence official. But his alleged confederate was “too smart,” the official said, and refused to take it. Instead, he asked Franklin to brief him on its contents—and Franklin allegedly obliged. Franklin also passed information gleaned from more highly classified documents, the official said.
Slowly but surely, the FBI gathered evidence and reeled in their catch, finally confronting him at his Maryland home—where he immediately broke down and confessed. A search of the premises yielded a treasure trove of classified documents: a veritable library of U.S. secrets spanning three decades. In return for leniency, Franklin agreed to wear a wire at his next meeting with his handlers. With the rat securely in their paws, the feds set a trap, using Franklin as bait.
At his next meeting with his AIPAC contacts, Franklin told them that he had purloined a highly classified bit of intelligence that they mustn’t use, because it was so closely held: Israeli agents in Kurdistan were under threat from Iranians, who had targeted them for assassination. The feds were sure that the AIPAC duo’s passion to protect Israelis would easily trump the need for discretion, and they were right: The FBI was listening on the other end of the line as Rosen and Weissman related the faux-intelligence to Israeli-embassy officials and a journalist.
The trap was sprung: In December 2003, the FBI raided AIPAC headquarters in Washington, D.C., surrounding the place in an early morning sweep, and staying until 4 p.m., serving subpoenas to four top AIPAC officials. Boxes full of evidence were hauled away.
Franklin, Rosen, and Weissman were all indicted. Franklin pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to twelve-and-a-half years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Rosen and Weissman procured the services of high-powered lawyers and fought the charges, while AIPAC lobbied furiously behind the scenes to get the charges dropped or reduced.
Indeed, the FBI was listening in on a suspected Israeli agent when he rang up U.S. Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) and asked her to intervene with the Department of Justice to go easy on the AIPAC defendants. In return, AIPAC would push Harman’s campaign for the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee, which she had long coveted. The agent told her that fanatic pro-Israel toy mogul Haim Saban would threaten Nancy Pelosi with the withdrawal of his substantial financial backing of Democratic candidates if she did not appoint Harman to the post. Instead of being persuaded by such hardball tactics, however, Pelosi was apparently angered, and Harman’s campaign not only failed but backfired badly, as this was the genesis of what became a public feud between the two Democratic harridans.
Harman’s campaign failed, but AIPAC’s was more successful: This April, after nearly five years of legal proceedings, the charges against Rosen and Weissman were dropped. The announcement was made the day before the trial was scheduled to begin. Rosen, who had crawled out of the shadows to begin writing a blog for the ultraneocon Middle East Forum, claimed vindication. In a statement, however, prosecutors declined to exonerate him, saying only that pretrial rulings would make it difficult to pursue the case.
Among those rulings was one issued by U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis that disallowed a government motion to sequester evidence containing highly classified intelligence. The defense team had relied on the sensitivity of the stolen secrets to “graymail” the government into dropping the case. Another of Judge Ellis’s rulings allowed the defense to subpoena a long list of prominent government officials. The trial would have heard public testimony from Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams, and a dozen other apparatchiks in the national-security bureaucracy. From the moment the defense motion was granted, it became increasingly apparent this case would never come to trial. Prosecutors and the FBI men in the field reportedly argued that the case could be won in spite of the handicaps imposed by Judge Ellis, but the graymailing defense tactics and the power of AIPAC won the day.
This case is significant for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the power and reach of Israel’s lobby in the United States, even as a public debate over that subject has finally broken out into the open.
In the beginning, the usual suspects stayed away from this case. AIPAC fired both Rosen and Weissman, declared they had engaged in “inappropriate” behavior, and reneged on paying the expenses of their two ex-employees’ defense. The charges hit the Israel Lobby right where it lives: The suspicion of dual loyalty loomed like a dark storm cloud, warning of trouble ahead for AIPAC if it didn’t back off. At one point, the Justice Department was contemplating indicting AIPAC as an organization, as they always do in the cases of Muslim “charities” with dubious overseas connections. If that had happened, AIPAC would have been finished as an effective lobbying organization and in all likelihood forced to register as an agent of a foreign power under the requirements of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
After a few years had passed, however, and behind-the-scenes efforts to squelch the prosecution had failed, the Lobby got over its shyness and began to agitate on behalf of the defendants. The Washington Post took up the cudgel, as did a number of neoconservative commentators who studiously ignored the massive evidence pointing to the guilt of the accused and asserted that Rosen and Weissman were just doing what reporters and other lobbyists do all the time—gather and disseminate information on policy issues in the process of advocating for their causes. What they failed to mention, however, was that—normally—reporters and lobbyists don’t procure classified information and then hand it over to foreign governments. At first, calls for dropping the charges were few and subdued, but they got louder, more numerous, and more insistent as the trial date approached. A Washington Post editorial blasted the prosecution a week before the trial, amid a chorus of whining from Israel’s Amen Corner, crying “persecution” and, of course, “antisemitism.”
Second, the AIPAC case revealed the outlines of a much broader investigation into Israeli covert activities in this country, one that encompasses not only technology transfers—industrial and military spying—but the infiltration of the U.S. government by Israel’s agents of influence. They nabbed Franklin, you will recall, while keeping tabs on Gilon (the Israeli diplomat), Rosen, and Weissman, an indication they were after much bigger fish. According to a 2005 story by Knight Ridder’s Warren Strobe, the FBI had been watching the Israelis and their American enablers for “more than two years and [the investigation] has involved FBI interviews with officials in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s office and elsewhere in the executive branch.” The indictment details alleged acts of espionage by Rosen and/or Weissman that date back to 1999.
The passing of highly classified information to Israel was only one reason why the FBI was so interested in Franklin and his spy nest. According to news reports at the time, the FBI was also investigating Franklin’s relationship with the infamous Ahmed Chalabi and with Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian arms dealer who played a central role in the Reagan-era arms-for-hostages scandal. U.S. counterintelligence was convinced Chalabi’s security chief had tipped off Tehran that the Americans had cracked their communications code and were listening in on the Iranian government’s internal deliberations. The FBI wanted to know how Chalabi had discovered this closely guarded secret and thought they had a lead, given Franklin’s close links with neoconservatives grouped around the Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon. This was the cabal that sponsored and succored the exiled Iraqi leader, even as he and his cohorts lied about Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction” and funneled their fabrications onto the front page of the New York Times, by way of the ever-obliging Judy Miller.
What part did Israel’s covert-action operations in the United States play in the machinations and manipulation of “intelligence” that lied us into war? This is a question the trial of the AIPAC defendants might have begun to answer. Still, the truth may come out—eventually.
The intelligence and law-enforcement professionals who gathered evidence for this case and witnessed how it was delayed, obstructed, and finally squelched—and saw themselves accused of mounting an antisemitic “pogrom” by the Israel Lobby’s attack dogs (yes, they actually used that term) are no doubt frustrated and plenty angry. The leaking of the tapes exposing Harman’s deal with “a suspected Israeli agent,” as news reports described her interlocutor, was payback—and that may be just the beginning. Israeli spying in the United States has always been taboo in the American media, but the AIPAC espionage case has pulled back the curtain on it permanently. As Israel and the United States are increasingly at loggerheads over Palestine and other issues, expect the spying to be ratcheted up—and the U.S. response along with it.