Amateur Hour

The FBI’s botched investigation of AIPAC is an embarrassment.

The strange case of Larry Franklin, the Pentagon analyst convicted of spying for Israel, just got a little stranger yesterday. In a fascinating piece in the Washington Times by the indefatigable Bill Gertz, Franklin unburdened his soul, declaring that he had originally been an FBI double agent. Instead of being a turncoat, Franklin says, he was betrayed by the FBI itself, which supplied him with a tape-recording device for meetings with American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) official Keith Weissman and Israeli embassy functionary Naor Gilon.

Poor Franklin! He was sentenced to prison in 2006. The FBI sting operation against Franklin was supposed to be the prelude to nabbing AIPAC officials Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman. The case against them went nowhere. The government bungled the case, largely because there never was much of a case against the two. The government was criminalizing routine efforts to discover information about what's transpiring in official Washington. One theory was that, in invoking the obscure Wilson-era Espionage Act, the Bush administration was trying to suppress normal information-gathering in Washington, DC.

But adding to the bizarre character of it all is that Franklin was working under former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith and his deputy William I. Luti. Feith is well-known as an outspoken advocate for Israel. Was the FBI trying to intimidate pro-Israel voices in Washington by targeting Franklin and AIPAC?

Which is why the biggest question remains: why did the FBI go after AIPAC in the first place? If Franklin's story is true, it only makes the FBI look even worse. Not only did it mess up the investigation-or, to put it another way, probe where there was nothing to investigate-but it also double-crossed its own man. Now, it's possible that Franklin is inventing his story out of whole cloth, but his version of events doesn't seem implausible. It's also possible that the FBI did encourage Franklin to meet with Rosen and Weissman, but that he was overzealous.

From his own account, Franklin does sound naïve. He was apparently intent on influencing the Bush administration's debate over Iran policy on the eve of the Iraq war. Franklin was part of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, which was run by William I. Luti and Douglas J. Feith, neither of whom, presumably, would have nourished any illusions about Iran's malign intentions (though Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who simply wanted to get in and out of Iraq as quickly as possible, may have thought otherwise, or was perhaps simply indifferent to the issue of Iran). But Franklin asserts that senior Pentagon officials believed they could "persuade Iran to be part of the solution and not part of the problem" and that he wanted to jolt the National Security Council into action.  Rosen and Weissman's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, by contrast, says that it was all about getting AIPAC to influence the Defense Department directly.

Whatever. At most it sounds like an aide who overstepped his bounds, but not one who should be subject to criminal prosecution.

For Israel, the affair is a minor inconvenience and has hardly stopped it from spying on its ally. In the eternal war of spy versus spy, it's difficult to know who's telling the truth and who's confecting it, which is what keeps the entire business going in the first place, whether it's Cuba suborning a State Department official or Russia infiltrating the CIA, as it has routinely done.

What may distinguish the Israel case from many others is that the main characters were operating from conviction rather than for money-the Cuba case of State Department official Walter Kendall Myers and his wife Gwendolyn, by contrast, goes back thirty years, a reminder of cold war passions that have faded away for everyone else. They were the real thing.

In recent years, however, most spy scandals have been driven less by ideology than by the desire for loot. But perhaps that should have been a tell-tale sign that there never was a scandal involving Israel, AIPAC and Franklin. Money was never the issue. Judgment was. Franklin doesn't turn out to have been a big fish, but a kind of Walter Mitty character whose little exploits were taken seriously only by the FBI.

 

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.