Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Israel 'Spy Scandal' Figure Larry Franklin Breaks Silence by Jeff Stein

He insists he did it for his country, to head off a disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq.

But instead, Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin found himself charged with giving classified information to suspected agents of Israel. In 2006 he was sentenced to almost 13 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, later reduced to probation and 10 months house arrest for cooperating with the feds.

Today, the former Iran specialist is mopping floors at a Roy Rogers near his home in West Virginia and serving a 100 hour community service sentence at a halfway house for abused children.

Now, breaking silence for the first time since he became entangled in the Israel-spy-ring-that wasn't, Franklin says he gave sensitive information to a pro-Israel lobbyist in hopes that it would be passed on to the White House.

He also admitted telling an Israeli official "that the Iranians were planning to kill Americans in Iraq."

The information was a "mosaic" of Iran's secret preparations for combating U.S. troops in Iraq, Franklin said, including the names and locations of Iran's secret agents and safe houses in Iraq.

He didn't think it was classified, he says. Now he realizes at least some of it was. He pled guilty in 2006.

But back in 2003, with the invasion of Iraq only weeks away, he was desperate to persuade the White House to put on the brakes.

So when Steven J. Rosen, an official with the American-Israel Public affairs Committee (AIPAC), told Franklin that he was friendly with Elliott Abrams, head of the Middle East desk in the White House National Security Council, Franklin said he "jumped at the chance" to get the information to him.

As it turned out, however, the FBI had an open investigation of Israeli espionage in Washington, going back to the 1990s.

Franklin, Rosen and Keith Weissman, another AIPAC official with whom he had been meeting, had just walked into it.

On May 2005, all three were charged with violations of the 1917 Espionage Act.

Only later, Franklin said, did he find out that "two tics" (items) on his list were considered classified.

Critics complained loudly that a conviction would criminalize the routine exchange of information among officials, journalists and think tanks.

Exactly four years later the charges were dropped. The government said the judge set too high a bar for the government to prove that the defendants had conspired to harm the national security of the United States.

Last week, Franklin, 62, said he was ready to talk.

"I have been silent for five years ..." he said by e-mail. "The release will be therapeutic."

We met at the Dupont Circle office of his attorney, famed criminal defense lawyer Plato Cacheris.

Looking tired and disheveled, Franklin sounded like he could use some therapy.

Once a top Iran expert at the Pentagon, holder of a PhD in Asian Studies, Franklin has found only odd jobs since being confronted by the FBI in 2004: ditch digger, church janitor, cleaning sewers, parking lot attendant at Charles Town Race Track, and so on. His wife is wheelchair-bound with a spinal disease. A teenage son was traumatized by the FBI investigation, he says.

Over an hour-long interview with Cacheris at his side, however, Franklin was more than happy to discuss a range of topic that had fascinated national security journalists since the case broke in 2004.

Among them: his leaks to AIPAC officials; details of a secret meeting he attended in Rome in December 2001 with the legendary Iranian conspirator, Manucher Ghorbanifar; and reports that someone had encouraged him to fake his suicide to avoid testifying against the AIPAC defendants.

Franklin also had bitter complaints about the FBI, which tapped his phone and forced him to wear a wire during a meeting in which he offered Rosen a phony classified document that the bureau had prepared.

All through that 10-week period, he and Cacheris said, the FBI never advised him he could be arrested himself and should get a lawyer.


Franklin says he was desperate in early 2003 to get his information about Iranian preparations to kill Americans in Iraq into the hands of a White House policy-maker.

The problem was, he didn't know anyone close to White House National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

Even though he worked for two of the most powerful officials in the Pentagon, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and the undersecretary for policy, Douglas Feith, "I was just a little guy," he insisted.

He says he was worried that the Bush administration had "no policy on Iran," much less a plan for dealing with Iranian subversion when U.S. troops entered Iraq.

"By that time I was underwhelmed by the Bush-Rice team," he said.

Even Wolfowitz and Feith, leading neoconservative hawks, Franklin said, "thought Iran could be part of the solution in Iraq and not part of the problem, that they would see a common interest with us in getting rid of Saddam, and that by shock-and-awe we would scare them into ground-level neutrality."

("That's not at all an accurate rendering of my thinking," Feith responded by e-mail.)

Franklin said he was "entirely convinced" that the invading Americans would be "coming home in body bags in bunches," as a result of Iranian-sponsored terrorism, about which the administration knew nothing.

"They were preparing an entrapment for us, to get us in and never let us out," Franklin maintained, and the Bush administration had "no policy" to deal with it.

"Larry was frustrated because U.S. policy was contradictory," Hillary Mann Leverett, a national security council official who dealt with Franklin, recalled in a telephone interview.

On the one hand, Pentagon neoconservatives were pressing for "regime change," said Leverett, who was the NSC's director of Iran and Persian Gulf Affairs in 2002-2003.

On the other, White House and State Department officials were arguing for continuing discreet talks with Iran over Afghanistan and Al Qaeda.

The gridlock prevented the administration from producing a concensus National Security Policy Directive, on Iran.

"My impression was that we didn't have a policy," said another Bush White House official who worked on Middle East issues, "the principals were way too polarized. In that sense, it's correct to say we didn't have a policy."

So when AIPAC official Rosen intimated that he had good White House contacts, Franklin "jumped at the chance" to get his report into the right hands, he said.

"Rosen boasted of his contacts in the NSC and the State Department - he was dropping all these names that I recognized -- he dropped the name of Elliott Abrams, head of Middle East policy for the national security staff," Franklin said.

"When Rosen dropped his name, among others, I seized upon that ... If I could get [Abrams] to slow things down, maybe I could get Rice - Condoleezza Rice, to pause and say, 'Hey, maybe we really do need a foreign policy on Iran before we invade the country next door.'"

Rosen assured him he would get his Iran information to Abrams, Franklin said.

"But he didn't do that. He went to The Washington Post and the political officer at the Israeli embassy." (Rosen's indictment spelled out those acts.)

"He was duped -- he was duped real, real good," said a senior law enforcement official involved in the case. Another said, "My feeling was that they took advantage of him."

Franklin shook his head.

"No...this was my initiative. I was not directed by him," he said.

Why, I asked didn't he just call Abrams or somebody else at the NSC himself? Surely they would know who he was - or he could quickly inform them.

Franklin turned up a palm.

"Again, I was just - even though I had access to Wolfowitz and could go up to his office, I was just a little guy."

"I should have done a lot of things," he added. "I mean, I made some stupid decisions. Yeah, that would've been the better thing to do."

What's next? A book, of course.

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