Accused Israel spy hints at FBI anti-Semitism in AIPAC probe
'I was asked about every Jew I knew in the [defense] secretary's bureau,' says former top U.S. official.
He was arrested, subjected to humiliating interrogations, accused of spying for Israel, lived under the specter of a 13-year prison term and sold everything he owned to pay for his legal defense. But Lawrence Franklin, 63, a former senior officer in the U.S. Air Force, an intelligence expert, university professor and senior official in the U.S. administration, did not crack. A devout Catholic, he accepted his bitter fate submissively and saw it as a test from heaven, as a means of achieving salvation. This is not just rhetoric. In order to support his family - his disabled wife and their five children - Franklin took a job cleaning restrooms at a West Virginia church, washed the floors in the local Roy Rogers restaurant and even dug cesspools. While making his way through that vale of tears, he arrived at an insight: that some of the agencies of the U.S. administration, and in particular the Federal Bureau of Investigation, are tainted by anti-Semitism. "I learned a lot from crawling on the floor," he says in a special interview with Haaretz.
Franklin is not yet entirely free to talk about his ordeal: The details of the case remain classified, and the trial was held behind closed doors. He has not yet begun carrying out the community service to which he was ultimately sentenced. Any incautious remark on his part is liable to stir the wrath of the FBI and stoke what he sees as its desire for revenge. Every word he uttered in the interview was examined under the magnifying glass of his lawyer, Plato Cacheris, a former Marine officer, who is defending Franklin pro bono.
Franklin worked in the Pentagon, in the secretary of defense's bureau, as a senior policy analyst on Iran, Iraq, and Hezbollah. His superiors were Jews: Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, and Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy. Franklin believes these two senior officials were the actual, main targets of the FBI investigation, which, he says, wanted to incriminate them through him on a charge of spying for Israel.
Franklin replies cautiously when asked about anti-Semitism in the administration in general and in the FBI in particular: "I don't want to go into details on this. I find it embarrassing to admit to a foreign journalist that highly passionate prejudices and biases like these still exist in an organization that is so respected and admired by the majority of Americans. I was asked about every Jew I knew in the [defense] secretary's bureau and had left, and that disturbed me very much."
Five years ago Franklin had a dramatic encounter with FBI agents, who informed him he was suspected of being a mole for the Israeli defense and intelligence establishments, in the heart of the U.S. administration. Those accusations spawned the "AIPAC affair," involving suspicions and investigations against Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, senior officials in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby in Washington. Another name that cropped up in the investigation was that of Naor Gilon, currently the Israeli Foreign Ministry's chief of staff and at the time the liaison with Congress in the Israeli embassy. Similarly, Dr. Uzi Arad, now the policy adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the head of the National Security Council, was questioned by the FBI within the framework of the Franklin investigation and until recently was barred from entering the United States.
In fact, anyone who had contact of any kind with Franklin, Weissman and Rosen was automatically a suspect in this affair. Indeed, in the early stages of the undercover investigation, FBI agents probably wiretapped the suspects' phones. Some of the people questioned, including American journalists, underwent encounters that bordered on harassment and were subjected to implicit threats.
Recently the affair ended, like a leaky balloon. The U.S. Department of Justice dropped the charges against Rosen and Weissman; Arad, who holds a diplomatic passport by virtue of his position, is again free to enter the United States. But the scars of the five-year affair, which damaged relations between the two countries and made it particularly difficult for AIPAC to operate, have yet to heal. The most painful scars are borne by Franklin, the chief victim.
Lawrence (Larry) Franklin spent more than 30 years in military service and in the U.S. defense establishment. In the course of his career, he also studied history, political science and Asian studies at three different universities and obtained three academic degrees, including a Ph.D. He speaks six languages in addition to English: Mandarin, Russian, Farsi, Arabic, Spanish and French. He reached the rank of colonel in the air force, in which he engaged chiefly in intelligence and anti-terror warfare. He began working for the administration more than 35 years ago, in 1973, in the Drug Enforcement Agency, and later in the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon's intelligence and research unit. He also worked as a professor at several universities.
Franklin's worldview can be described as conservative American patriotism tinged with religious faith. It is thus natural for him to support Israel, to identify with its struggle and with what it represents to him - a country that is doing battle on the frontline of Western civilization - and to be familiar with the country and its defense establishment. He first visited here more than 20 years ago on an exchange program between the Israeli army and the Pentagon. Franklin's ties with Israel deepened in 1998, when he was appointed U.S. Air Force attache to Israel, a post he held until 2004. He declines to say whether he operated from the Tel Aviv embassy, and reveals only that he visited Israel seven or eight times. He admits exchanging a few comments in Farsi with then chief of staff, Persian-born Gen. Shaul Mofaz. (Franklin says he is currently trying to improve his skills by translating President Barack Obama's recent Cairo speech into Farsi.)
Upon returning to Washington, Franklin kept up his ties with Israeli diplomats and with visiting defense and intelligence personnel. He also met, albeit infrequently, with AIPAC lobbyists. These meetings were sanctioned by his superiors at the Pentagon, particularly on the Iranian desk and in a special unit established by then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld. One of the unit's tasks was to assemble the "Iraqi file"; preparing information that would validate the decision to invade Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein's regime was linked to Al-Qaida and had developed weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. With the encouragement of President George W. Bush, a group of neoconservatives formed around Rumsfeld. The group did not trust other bodies in the administration - the Central Intelligence Agency, in particular - and left them in the dark with respect to its activity, which at times seemed to be of questionable legality. Two of the leading neocons were Franklin's direct superiors, Feith and Wolfowitz, and the unfolding affair involving them was rife with intimations of anti-Semitism and an anti-Israel stance. Critics of the Bush administration's policy pointed out that the leading figures in the neocon group were pro-Israel Jews, and intimated that Israel and its supporters in the administration, the majority of whom were naturally Jews, had pushed the United States into the war in Iraq.
The controversial methods which the group employed were revealed in the wake of a leak to the media, long after the fact, about a secret meeting at which Franklin was present. At the end of 2001, he, along with Harold Rhode, his colleague in the Pentagon and on the Iranian desk, and Michael Ledeen, an independent consultant who was involved in Irangate in the 1980s, were sent secretly to Rome to meet with Iranian representatives. The meeting was organized - and attended - by Manucher Ghorbanifar, a merchant, middleman and former officer in the Savak, the shah's notorious security service. Following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Ghorbanifar switched sides and became close to the Revolutionary Guard, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and National Security, and to various officials in the Tehran government. In the mid-1980s he was the central figure in the Irangate scandal and was the liaison to Yaakov Nimrodi, Al Schwimmer and Dave Kimche, who acted on behalf of Israel to strike a deal involving the sale of arms to Iran in return for the release of American hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon. Already then, Israel's Mossad espionage agency and the CIA reached the conclusion that Ghorbanifar was a dubious character who was probably working for Iranian intelligence. That, however, did not stop Franklin from meeting with him. For his part, Franklin maintains the meeting was important and produced concrete results.
"Ghorbanifar's info was on target," he recalls. "The sources he brought must remain nameless for their protection. One piece of info saved American soldiers' lives in Afghanistan from an Iranian-inspired and sponsored assassination squad. I relayed the details in a most direct and timely fashion. While I did not endorse Ghorbanifar's operational suggestions on how to shake the foundations of the Iranian regime, the information provided by his sources was corroborated by other source material I had access to as the [Pentagon's] Iran desk officer."
Didn't the CIA detest Ghorbanifar?
"There was a no-contact order by the CIA on Ghorbanifar because of the agency's past unsatisfactory relationship with him. However, our mission was approved by the NSC. Moreover, we worked for the secretary of defense and were not subject to CIA authority. The CIA viewed us as [being] 'in their lane.' I invited the Defense Intelligence Agency to join us, as well as military intelligence representatives in Europe. They declined, fearful of the CIA's no-contact order."
Franklin now plans to write a book entitled "Clash" explaining in detail how he believes the United States (and the world) can be saved from the Iranian threat. Attacking Iran's nuclear facilities will be like falling into a trap, he notes: "The Israeli government's intelligence agencies must do everything short of attacking Iranian territory to disrupt the rule of Iran's military theocrats. To take the bait and bomb Iran's known nuclear facilities will gain some time, but it will unite Iranians behind a despised regime. Propaganda, cyberwar, sabotage all are viable weapons [in this struggle]."
'Kikes' and 'Izzis'
Larry Franklin says he has never made a secret of his feelings for Israel. "When I was the senior political-military Soviet analyst at the Pentagon, I had Natan's picture on my wall [referring to former Soviet refusenik and later Israel cabinet minister Natan Sharansky, now chairman of the Jewish Agency]. He was and remains a hero of mine. It was okay then, and no one said anything about the picture. But," he adds bitterly, "when I was arrested and interrogated, the FBI agents took another picture, of Natan and I together, from my home - then it was not okay anymore."
Franklin also finds many similarities between Israel and his homeland: "Israel, like America, is an idea that is ever-becoming. Israel, like America, is not just another country with borders, a flag and an anthem. Like America, Israel is a place of refuge for the refused. It is a society that sheds the generous light of a second chance on those who are not welcome in their native land. You see, even a Martian can become an American if he or she embraces the principles promulgated in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Israel and America have welcomed both Christians and Jews; Christians who have been harassed into exile from the Arab Middle East, and Sephardim who have experienced their own 'nakba' [catastrophe]" (the Palestinians' term for what befell them in 1948).
What in particular do you admire about Israel?
"One aspect of Israeli society that I admire as a free citizen is how Israel, despite an omnipresent, existential threat has protected the liberties of the individual. After 9/11 we [in America] upset the balance between liberty and security. The current administration is working to reset that tenuous balance. We just need to call to mind Benjamin Franklin's wise counsel not to seek security at the price of liberty. Athens must learn to fight like Sparta without becoming like it."
Your comments on Israel sound like preaching.
"As a Catholic Christian, it was spiritually uplifting as I walked late at night along the shores of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus fished and preached. But I am not an 'end-of-time evangelical' who sees the significance of Israel only in an apocalyptic setting. I look upon Israelis and Jews in general as the late Pope John Paul II spoke of them: as 'our elder brothers.'"
The investigators apparently became suspicious of Franklin because of his meetings with Naor Gilon. It follows that Gilon, like other Israeli diplomats, was probably under constant surveillance or that his phone was tapped. It is no secret that Israel's envoys in the United States - from the Foreign Ministry, the Israel Defense Forces, the intelligence community and the Defense Ministry - operate on the assumption that their phones and computers are being tapped.
Franklin: "For years, as part of my work in the Pentagon, I met with military attaches of U.S. allies. The meetings were almost on a weekly basis and were for exchanges of information and assessments. When I moved to the unit in the office of the secretary of defense, I was told that because of the civilian nature of the position, it would be best if I stopped meeting with army personnel and focused on contacts with diplomats. That is how I was introduced to Naor Gilon. My superiors, both military and civilian, knew about the meetings. I used to meet with Gilon from time to time on Friday mornings over a milkshake after working out. They were innocent meetings between two allies, but it was inflated by those who were looking for a bigger fish than me to fry. I was just the bait."
(Gilon, Arad and Sharansky declined to comment.)
But Franklin's troubles with U.S. law-enforcement agencies sprang not only from his actions and his close ties with Israel. In this writer's opinion, they are the result of something deeper - the FBI's constant and unwavering suspicion that Israel is a treacherous state which, unsatisfied with the generous aid it receives from its American ally, systematically and unscrupulously connives to spy and steal information and technology in the United States.
Those suspicions, which became an obsession, were reinforced in 1985 with the affair of the civilian navy analyst Jonathan Pollard, who was discovered to be spying for Israel. From its investigation of Pollard, the FBI concluded that Israel had another spy deep within the administration - someone even more senior than Pollard, sometimes nicknamed by the FBI as Mr. X. The agency initially thought it was Franklin. "There were some in the administration," he explains, "who developed and cultivated the fantasy of a conspiracy," which continues to exist since Pollard's conviction in 1987.
Franklin's impression was that his interrogators believed Pollard had a secret partner, a mole, probably in the office of the secretary of defense. "The pursuit to uncover the mole was fed by a malevolent anti-Semitic passion. In the intelligence community, Israelis are called 'Izzis,' which has an unpleasant odor to it. They can't say 'kikes' nowadays, so they resort to 'Izzis.'"
After being arrested and threatened that he would be charged with aggravated espionage and possibly even treason - leading to a lengthy prison term - Franklin agreed to cooperate with the FBI.
"I was a naive fool," he admits. "My whole sin was that occasionally I took documents home to work on. I also told Rosen and Weissman orally about power struggles and bureaucratic differences in the administration over Iran. I never gave anyone a secret or classified document."
Because he felt he had never done anything wrong or illegal, he agreed to act as bait for the FBI. In addition to their burning desire to discover damning information about Franklin's superiors, the agents used his services to incriminate Steve Rosen, who was then in charge of foreign policy in AIPAC. "They told me Rosen was a bad guy," he says. Franklin's impression was that Rosen had been under FBI surveillance for years.
The height of his cooperation with the investigation came on June 23, 2003, when Franklin met with Rosen and Weissman - who was in charge of the "Iranian file" in AIPAC - at an Italian restaurant in Arlington, Virginia. The FBI initiated the meeting, briefed Franklin and wired him with transmitters. Undercover agents aldocumented the event. "It was one of the moments I am not proud of," he says now.
It was a full-fledged sting operation. The FBI had provided Franklin with a fabricated secret document containing information to the effect that Israelis working secretly in Iraqi Kurdistan were in clear and immediate danger from Iranian agents. As instructed by the FBI, Franklin placed the document on the table and went to the restroom. The FBI agents hoped that Rosen or Weissman would take advantage of the opportunity to read the document. However, they did not. In retrospect, Franklin says, he had hoped ardently that the AIPAC men would not pick up the document and was relieved when they did not. Afterward, though, Rosen and Weissman passed on what they had heard verbally from Franklin to personnel in the Israeli embassy and to selected journalists, who immediately published it.
After cooperating with the investigation, Franklin reached a plea bargain with the FBI and the Department of Justice, under which he was not charged with espionage but only with the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. Judge T.S. Ellis from the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia sentenced him to 12 and a half years in prison and a fine of $100,000. Later, the sentence was reduced to 10 months in a halfway house and 100 hours of community service, which Franklin will soon begin to carry out in the form of talks to high-school students about how important it is for civil servants not to break the law. Franklin discloses that, not long before the plea bargain was concluded, when it appeared certain he would have to testify against the AIPAC lobbyists, he was approached by two men who offered to help him fake his suicide and disappear, to obviate the need to testify in court.
Franklin refuses outright to reveal the identity of the two men, explaining that parts of the affair are still under a gag order. However, the impression gleaned from other sources in Washington is that the two were not from AIPAC, but are very pro-Israel and supporters of the lobby, who approached Franklin with the dramatic offer at their own initiative.
Franklin felt that Rosen and Weissman had betrayed him. At the meeting in the restaurant, he says, he shared the information with them in the hope that they would pass it on to other senior officials in the administration, particularly in the Pentagon and the NSC. He did not expect they would convey it to Israeli government representatives and then leak it to the media. "I believe they crossed a forbidden line," he says, and emphasizes, "I had no contact with AIPAC. I was in contact with Rosen as someone who bragged about having connections in the administration and especially in the NSC. I saw it as an opportunity to present, through him, the position of the special office in the Pentagon about what U.S. policy on Iran should be, as it had not yet been articulated in a presidential directive. I thought it was essential to make it clear to Iran that we would not allow them to intervene in Iraq. We very much needed to formulate policy on Iran before invading its neighbor, Iraq."
Franklin does admit, however, that he broke the law: "Indeed, I unlawfully told Rosen about internal rivalries within the administration. The idea was for him to convey my concerns to Elliot Abrams, who headed the Middle East desk in the NSC. Instead, he went to the media and to the Israeli embassy." (In response to this allegation, which was also published earlier this month in the Forward, a Jewish magazine published in the States, Rosen said: "Franklin did not expect us to warn the Israelis that they would be kidnapped and killed? That's like telling officials of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] that there is going to be a lynching, but don't warn the victims, because it is a secret.")
How do you see the power of AIPAC and the lobby's influence on the administration?
"AIPAC is a powerful lobby but reports of its overweening influence on U.S. policy are exaggerated. Less visible but more powerful are the many instruments of Saudi Arabia's influence over U.S. policy. Even if Rosen and Weissman were guilty of some infraction of national security law, it is far better for the health of our American republic that they went free and were not charged."
Could it be that for years your close ties with Israel led you to provide Israel with information you were not authorized to convey?
"I am a veteran of several programs of inter-governmental exchanges of information, particularly in military affairs. In years of cooperation against common enemies, I shared in developing cordial relations with a number of Israelis. We are allies. They placed their trust in me and in return I trusted them. Is that so strange?"
Did your acquaintance with Shaul Mofaz come up in the interrogations?
"No. Neither Mofaz's name nor the names of any other Israelis were mentioned in my interrogations."
Did the investigators suspect that you had Israeli handlers and that Uzi Arad was one of them?
"I don't know what the FBI thinks about Uzi Arad. I did not have a handler. I am not a spy. The FBI is well aware of that." W