Friday night, a breathless Leslie Stahl led off the CBS Evening News with her scoop that the FBI was hot on the trail of a spy working for Israel in the Defense Department. The CBS story presented a tale of the spy passing documents to officials at AIPAC, the American pro-Israel lobby, who supposedly then sent them on to Israel. The documents in question apparently dealt with American policy towards Iran.
The story left hints of deeper intrigue. CBS reported that the official under suspicion at the Department of Defense was part of Doug Feith’s team at DoD, which participated in developing independent intelligence assessments on Iraq prior to the Iraq war. In case anyone did not see the implications of this, Stahl suggested that investigators were not only concerned that Israel might have used the information that was passed on to drum up a new war with Iran, but might have used the agent to help push the US to war with Iraq. In case anyone forgot, we were also reminded of the prior Israel spy case involving Jonathan Pollard almost 20 years back.
Some things about this story did not pass the smell test. Who was leaking this story to CBS? Why would the FBI, which has not yet filed any charges despite many months of investigating the individual, let out the news of this investigation now, and why to CBS? Was it merely coincidence, that Leslie Stahl was the reporter for this story? After all, she and her cohorts at 60 Minutes have been promoting Bush-bashing stories for several months: Abu Ghraib, the Richard Clarke charges about 9/11, and then the interview with General Anthony Zinni, with his smear of various neoconservative writers and government officials.
Then there was the timing of the leak. For the first time in two months, President Bush has taken the lead in the polls. Senator Kerry appears to have been badly damaged by the relentless attacks concerning his Viet Nam experiences, and his post Viet Nam anti-war activities. The Republican convention, likely to give a further lift to Bush, is to start on Monday.
If somebody were trying to derail Bush’s momentum, change the subject from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to other subjects (Iraq and Iran), and/or deal a body blow to US Israel relations and to AIPAC, these charges, leaked at this time, and to this reporter, would do the trick.
What do we know so far about this story? While most newspaper and TV news shows gave prominent coverage to the story Friday night and Saturday, the story has largely dropped off the radar screen the last day (except in Israeli papers) . A lot of people seem to be cautious about something that is in the investigation stage, and about which there are conflicting reports. Shortly after the story broke, and the charges hit the air, both the government of Israel and AIPAC issued forceful denials that there was any truth to the story. The Israeli press is a no-holds-barred spectacle on an average day. So far, no Israeli paper, from any part of the political spectrum, has dug up any evidence that Israel has, in fact, been running a spy in the Pentagon. Even the CBS News report did not accuse Israel of planting a spy.
As for AIPAC, this organization did not get to its current position of influence in the foreign policy debate through carelessness, and stupidity. The idea that AIPAC officials would be this reckless, at a time when US Israel relations are very strong, and when President Bush has been remarkably supportive of Israel, stretches belief as well.
We know from the Washington Post that the Defense Department official at the center of the investigation is Larry Franklin. Unlike Jonathan Pollard, Franklin is not Jewish. There has also been no suggestion that Franklin has received any money for what he may or may not have done, again distinguishing him from Pollard. As far as personal ideology, the stories out so far suggest that Franklin was a hardliner on Iran, and was one of several US officials who were involved in some back channel meetings with Iranian dissidents a while back.
After an initial flurry of reports that Franklin was a high ranking official, and would soon be charged with espionage, the latest stories have been much more cautious, indicating that if charged, Franklin might only be hit with the misuse of classified documents . That is the same charge for which former Clinton Administration National Security Advisor Sandy Berger is under investigation for his highly unusual activities with various documents prior to his testimony before the 9/11 Commission. Franklin could also be charged with improper disclosure, an even less serious charge.
There is clearly the possibility that some government officials may have wanted to publicize the story now to ensure that some charges were filed, and, more importantly, for the story to make it into the national media. If the investigation were pursued quietly, as it had been for many months, and did not lead to charges, we might never have heard about it. But now with the CBS-sponsored publicity, it might become more difficult for the FBI to drop the case, for fear of looking like they were bowing to political pressure.
John Le Carre, the British spy writer, is no friend of either the United States or Israel. But his spycraft insights might be useful in sorting this story out. Because there are suspicious aspects to this story: the way it was released, when it was released, to whom it was released, which give every appearance of being as much a part of the real story as what was released. We are in the middle of an unusually bitter and very closely fought Presidential race. Within the Department of Defense, the State Department, the intelligence services and the US military, there are some people who were not enthusiastic about going to war with Iraq, and have not warmed to the task at hand since. The intelligence community, in particular, is smarting from accusations of two significant intelligence failures -- not picking up warnings about 9/11 before it occurred, and then reading too much into the threat of WMD from Iraq. Pending restructuring could benefit some and harm others. Sharp knives are out in a lot of places within the vast government bureaucracy.
Larry Franklin might have done something wrong. The way documents are passed around Washington these days, and the often meaningless classification schemes that are used for them, also make it possible for there to be an honest misunderstanding related to the use of some documents, with no malicious intent involved. Carelessness is also not espionage, and that particular problem is seen all too often in the handling of classified documents in Washington.
Given what little is known here, caution would have been advisable on the part of any reporter considering going public with fragmentary information. But CBS chose not to hold its fire until facts, rather than gossip or leaks, were presented to it. Espionage and treason are, after all, pretty serious charges. They can be capital offenses. And those who have chosen to get this story out through CBS have already done a great deal of damage to certain parties -- Israel, AIPAC, and Bush among them -- in addition to possibly prejudicing and possibility of a fair judgment on Franklin himself.
In Teheran, the mullahs must be smiling about all of this. The controversy may limit some of America’s options for responding to Iran’s burgeoning nuclear ambitions. Arafat too, is probably laughing in Ramallah, now that a few US government officials have given him this propaganda gift. And of course, the anti-Israel cheerleaders here, Chris Matthews, Pat Buchanan, Bob Novak, and others of their ilk, must now be at work on their next screed about the crimes of the neo-cons and their puppet master Sharon.