FBI investigates claims of spying in Pentagon

Unnamed aide accused of passing secrets to Israel

August 28, 2004|By Richard B. Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti | Richard B. Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department has launched an espionage investigation into whether an aide in the office of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld may have passed classified information to Israel through a powerful pro-Israeli lobbying group, sources familiar with the probe said yesterday.

The investigation, being handled by the counterespionage division of the FBI, is said to focus on an incident last year in which a top Pentagon analyst allegedly turned over a presidential directive on U.S. policy toward Iran to two people affiliated with the Washington-based American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, the sources said. They in turn may have given the information to Israel.

Officials are concerned because the directive that was transmitted was only in draft form and was still being debated by U.S. policy-makers, possibly putting the Israeli government in a position to influence the final document, officials said.

Moreover, investigators fear that the suspect - an analyst assigned to a unit within the Defense Department charged with helping develop U.S. Iraq policy - may also have been in a position to compromise government information about that country and the U.S. war effort.

The notion of a trusted ally such as Israel betraying U.S. secrets would be a major embarrassment for the Bush administration, especially coming just before the start of the Republican National Convention next week.

The sources said the Pentagon aide being scrutinized has ties to two architects of that strategy - Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and Douglas J. Feith, the undersecretary for policy. But the sources said there was no immediate evidence of information having been compromised.

Late yesterday, the Pentagon played down the prominence of the official under investigation and the importance of the information that may have been conveyed to Israel.

"DOD has been cooperating fully with the Department of Justice on this matter for an extended period of time," a Pentagon statement said. "The investigation involves a single individual at DOD at the desk officer level, who was not in a position to have significant influence over U.S. policy. Nor could a foreign power be in a position to influence U.S. policy through this individual. To the best of DOD's knowledge, the investigation does not target any other DOD individuals."

The investigation, which has entailed FBI wiretaps, undercover surveillance and photography, was first reported yesterday by CBS News. Justice Department officials declined to comment on the investigation or on reports that arrests in the case were imminent.

The official under suspicion is described by senior Defense officials as a mid-level civilian employee and Iranian specialist working at the Pentagon's office of Near East and South Asian Affairs. NESA is the office charged with setting the Pentagon's policy for the entire Middle East.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, it has had the lead on war planning both for Afghanistan and Iraq, and for determining the Defense Department's positions on Iraq, Syria and other trouble spots throughout the region. The office is run by William Luti but falls ultimately under the purview of Feith, the Pentagon's No. 3 official.

According to one senior Defense official, "This investigation has been going on for some time."

Iran, which has generated international worry over its potential nuclear capability, has expressed concern in recent days that Israel or the United States might use warplanes to destroy its facilities. Israel has been concerned about reports of Iran's nuclear ambitions. In response to perceived threats, Iran has boasted that its new generation of missiles could strike Israel.

The Israeli government strenuously denied any impropriety yesterday.

"We deny these allegations," said David Siegel, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington. "The United States is Israel's most cherished friend and ally. We have a strong ongoing relationship at all levels and in no way would Israel do anything to impair this relationship."

AIPAC also firmly denied wrongdoing.

"Any allegation of criminal conduct by AIPAC or our employees is false and baseless," the organization said in a statement. "Neither AIPAC nor any of its employees has violated any laws or rules, nor has AIPAC or its employees ever received information they believed was secret or classified."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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