Spy probe rendered murky by disclosure

Suspect was to reveal Israeli contacts, U.S. says


WASHINGTON - The Pentagon official under suspicion of turning over classified information to Israel began cooperating with federal agents several weeks ago and was preparing to lead the authorities to contacts inside the Israeli government when the case became publicly known last week, government officials said yesterday.

The disclosure of the inquiry late Friday by CBS News revealed what had been for nearly a year a covert national security investigation conducted by the FBI, according to the officials who said that news reports about the inquiry compromised important investigative steps, like the effort to follow the trail back to the Israelis.

As a result, several areas of the case remain murky, the officials said. One main uncertainty is the legal status of Lawrence A. Franklin, the lower-level Pentagon policy analyst who the authorities believe passed the Israelis a draft presidential policy directive related to Iran.

No arrest in the case is believed to be imminent, in part because prosecutors have not clearly established whether Franklin broke the law. But the officials said there was evidence that he turned over the classified material to officials at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group. Officials of the group are suspected of then passing the information to Israeli intelligence.

The lobbying group and Israel have denied that they engaged in any wrongdoing. Efforts to reach Franklin or his lawyer have not been successful. Friends of Franklin's, such as Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, said the accusations against him were baseless.

As the outline of the case emerged more clearly, doubts about some aspects of it seemed to stand out in sharper relief. Investigators, the officials said, might never fully understand the role of two officials for the lobbying group who they believe were in contact with Franklin. Nor are they likely to be able to completely determine whether Israel regarded the entire matter as an informal intelligence operation or as a casual relationship that Franklin himself might not have fully understood.

Investigators do not know, for example, whether Israeli intelligence officers "tasked" intermediaries at the group to seek specific information for Franklin to obtain, which would make the case more serious. Officials said some investigators speculated that Israeli officials might have passively accepted whatever classified material officials for the lobbying group happened to get from Franklin.

Moreover, Franklin appears to be an unlikely candidate for intelligence work. Although he was involved with Middle East policy, a defense official said yesterday that he had no impact on U.S. policy and few dealings with senior Pentagon officials, including the deputy defense secretary, Paul D. Wolfowitz.

At one point in the run-up to the Iraq war in early 2003, Franklin was brought in to help arrange meetings between Wolfowitz and Shiite and Sunni clerics across the United States, a defense official said. But he was never regarded as an influential figure.

"He was at the bottom of the food chain, at the grunt level," said a senior defense official. Another defense official said that Franklin "had a certain expertise and had access to things, but he wasn't a policy-maker."

Still, as a desk officer, especially one with a background at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Franklin would have had top-secret security clearance. That would have given him access to most of the nation's most sensitive intelligence about Iran, including that relating to its nuclear program, Pentagon officials said. He would also have had access to diplomatic cables and drafts of confidential documents about the administration's policies toward Iran.

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