WASHINGTON - An FBI investigation of the capital's biggest pro-Israel lobby marks the latest turn in a series of investigations encompassing intelligence, a divided Bush administration, and a group of hard-driving Pentagon officials and outside activists whose hawkish views on the Middle East often coincide with those of Israel's Sharon government.
No charges have been filed and no individual has been officially named as a target of the various inquiries, prompting a number of friends of those caught up in the investigations to complain of a smear campaign with anti-Israel and possibly anti-Jewish overtones.
But coming in the aftermath of disclosures about intelligence failures before the war in Iraq, the stakes in the outcome of the investigations are high. They could affect reputations and careers, ties between the United States and its closest Middle East ally, and chances of a concerted effort to halt Iran's nuclear program, which Israel views as a threat to its existence.
Whether wrongdoing is established or not, the investigations may spotlight a Bush administration policy-making apparatus in disarray, particularly over how to handle the looming security challenge of Iran, said Flynt Leverett, a former Middle East specialist on the National Security Council staff.
"Here we are three years in, and they can't agree on an Iran policy - that's bad enough. But if, on top of that, officials are leaking classified documents in order to advance their agenda, that's really bad," Leverett said.
Besides its broad inquiry into Israeli espionage, the FBI is also investigating whether one-time Pentagon ally Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, transferred sensitive U.S. secrets to Iran and how he obtained them.
And the Senate Intelligence Committee is gathering documents and conducting interviews to determine whether officials working for Douglas Feith, the Pentagon's No. 3 official, went outside normal channels to gather and analyze intelligence.
Senior White House officials have known for two years about an FBI counterespionage investigation of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee that broke into the open last week with reports that a mid-level Pentagon official was suspected of providing classified information to two AIPAC employees who, in turn, may have passed it to an Israeli diplomat.
AIPAC has forcefully denied that its officials knowingly received classified information. Israel also denied wrongdoing, and declared that any espionage against the United States ended after Jonathan Pollard was caught passing U.S. Navy secrets to the Israelis in 1985.
`A pretty wide net'
People who have been informed about the inquiry say it reaches well beyond the Pentagon official, Lawrence A. Franklin, an Iran specialist.
"I think they're casting a pretty wide net," one administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. A law-enforcement source said investigators felt the premature leak may have hampered the investigation, which reportedly includes the possible transfer of intercept information gathered by the National Security Agency to Israel.
FBI agents are said by officials to be delving not only into how Franklin handled classified information but also into the whole administration policy-making apparatus. After arriving Aug. 27 at AIPAC headquarters to execute a search warrant, agents briefly questioned one of the organization's most respected and well-connected analysts, Steven Rosen, and an Iran specialist, Keith Weissman, and obtained documents from Rosen's computer.
Franklin, the Pentagon official allegedly involved, is part of a large Pentagon policy operation headed by Feith that played a key role in arguing and preparing for the war in Iraq. It also helped shift U.S. policy in the Arab-Israeli conflict closer to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hard-line views.
Spying between allies is rarely publicized but is assumed to be widely practiced as nations struggle for a competitive edge in weapons systems, commercial technology and diplomatic tactics. The Clinton administration was accused of spying on France to gain advantage in trade negotiations. The United States and Britain are reported to have spied on other members of the U.N. Security Council before the Iraq war.
In the case of the United States and Israel, the line between intelligence sharing and espionage is complicated, given the two nations' deep and extensive collaboration on everything from developing anti-missile systems to studying terror groups and nations, such as Iran, viewed by both as hostile powers.
But U.S. officials are wary of Israeli attempts to obtain U.S. weapons technology that could then be resold to Israel's own customers.
While the two nations regularly share intelligence assessments, even such close allies "seldom share raw intelligence" for fear of compromising their own sources and methods, said Shai Feldman, who heads the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Line is less clear