Israelis act to protect ties to U.S.

Denying claims it spied on key ally, Israel seeks to avoid embarrassment

`Ridiculous assertion,' says ex-Mossad official

August 29, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli officials rushed yesterday to deny allegations of spying on the United States as they tried to head off a potentially embarrassing episode that threatens to strain relations between the two allies.

U.S. law enforcement officials have confirmed an FBI espionage investigation to determine whether an analyst working in the office of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld passed a secret report on Iran to Israel through an influential lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.

Sources in the Israeli government acknowledged yesterday that the Pentagon analyst under investigation had contacts with Israeli officials, but they characterized the exchanges as normal diplomatic discourse.

"We have no intelligence activity in the United States," said a senior aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"It is a ridiculous assertion," said Uzi Arad, who served as director of foreign intelligence for Israel's spy agency, the Mossad, in the mid-1990s. "But it has taken on a proportion that is damaging to us and to the United States."

Arad said he coordinated contacts between the CIA and the Mossad during his tenure, and he said Israel has not spied on the U.S. since 1985, when U.S. Navy intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard was arrested for espionage. The unit Pollard worked for was disbanded, and Pollard was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Mossad agents are in Washington, but all are known to the U.S. government, Arad said. At worst, he added, the analyst being investigated "crossed the line" by inappropriately disseminating sensitive material. "That is not espionage," he said.

Charges weighed

The FBI has spent more than a year covertly investigating, including with the use of electronic surveillance, whether the analyst funneled highly classified material to Israel, officials said yesterday.

Prosecutors were weighing whether to bring the most serious charge, espionage.

Charges could be brought in the case as early as this week, said two federal law enforcement officials speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing. The case has taken so long in part because of diplomatic sensitivities between the United States and its close ally Israel, they said.

Although the information involved - material describing Bush administration policy toward Iran - was described as highly classified, prosecutors could determine that the act involved falls short of espionage and could result in lesser but still serious charges of mishandling classified documents, the officials said.

They said the still-classified material did not detail U.S. military or intelligence operations and was not the type that would endanger the lives of U.S. spies overseas or betray sensitive methods of intelligence collection.

The target of the probe was identified by the two officials as Larry Franklin, a senior analyst in a Pentagon office dealing with Middle East affairs.

Franklin, who did not respond to a telephone message left at his office yesterday, formerly worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The New York Times reports in today's editions that the FBI is in communication with Franklin. Government officials said that Franklin has been in contact with investigators with the FBI, but it could not be learned whether he was talking with the bureau directly or through a lawyer.

In a statement late Friday, the Defense Department, without identifying anyone by name, said the inquiry involved someone 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."

In August last year, Franklin and a Pentagon colleague were in the news after it was disclosed that they had met two years earlier with Manuchar Ghorbanifar, who was among the Iranians who suggested to the Reagan administration in the 1980s that profits from arms-for-hostages deals be funneled into covert arms shipments to U.S.-backed contras battling the leftist Nicaraguan government.

Investigation continues

The U.S. law enforcement officials stressed that the investigation is not complete and that others could be implicated. They would not comment on whether that might include officials at AIPAC, which said it has been cooperating in the investigation.

"Any allegation of criminal conduct by AIPAC or its employees is false and baseless," AIPAC said in a statement.

Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Israeli parliament's Foreign Relations and Defense Committee, said in an interview last night that the government "made a firm decision following the Pollard scandal not to spy on the United States. Therefore, I'm firmly confident that nothing will come of the allegations about an Israeli mole in the Pentagon.

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