AIPAC: Israel's U.S. Spy Den

— Allen Ruff

EVERY NOW AND then some high level National Security "spy story" surfaces, one that allows us some glimpse into the inner workings of the imperial order.  Often there for but a moment before the public relations "spin doctors" and subservient members of the press corps do their dirty work, such tales of true "intrigue" and "espionage" reveal important insights into the mechanisms of power.

Viewed as a reflection of differing tactical and strategic interests within and among the various bureaucracies that formulate and implement "foreign policy," such short-lived "scandals" expose very real conflicts between various competing factions.

As interesting, if not more so, is the disappearance from public view, the "cover-up" of such intrigues—a reflection of not only Executive power over the Justice Department, but of the correlation of forces within a never monolithic or homogeneous ruling class.  The August-September exposure and rapid disappearance of what some immediately began to call "AIPACgate" provides a case in point.

In late August, Larry Franklin, a well-placed Iran specialist working in the Pentagon, was accused of passing sensitive documents to Israeli intelligence through operatives of the influential pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).  The New York Times soon did its duty as "the paper of record" and described Franklin as a "low level" DOD civilian employee.

The case rapidly took on a new dimension, however, when the Washington Post reported that "an ongoing investigation" of AIPAC as a possible conduit for information to Israel went well beyond Franklin and had been proceeding for over two years.  According to the Post, the FBI was also examining whether highly classified material from the National Security Agency, which conducts electronic intercepts of communications, was also forwarded to Israel.

The "leak" of that two-year FBI probe led to further press examination of the key players, all "higher ups" at the DoD. Stories began to raise questions regarding the connections between Donald Rumsfeld's Neocon crew, their connections with AIPAC, Israeli intelligence and ultimately, their affinity for Ariel Sharon's rightist Likud Party.

The initial disclosures, coming on the eve of the Republican Convention, suggested a "big story" as the fall election season was just about to heat up. Quickly submerged until "after the elections," the story as it unfolded also came to suggest a power struggle between Bush administration's Neocon appointees at the Pentagon and National Security Council, and the National Security State bureaucracies at the CIA and the State Department.

Regime Within the Regime

So what was the Franklin case?  The "leaked" FBI investigation focused on the Pentagon's policy department, a "mini state department" within Donald Rumsfeld's DOD that has played a major role in shaping current U.S. Mideast policy.  It is headed by the Neocon activist with long-time Likud links, Defence Undersecretary Douglas Feith.

Not some low level nobody, but the Pentagon's chief Iran analyst, Franklin was the "go to" man when Feith and his boss, Paul Wolfowitz had questions on Iran. Franklin worked directly under Feith's deputy, William Luti, also well-known for his pro-Likud sentiments.

Franklin had come to FBI attention over a year and a half ago when he unexpectedly walked into a Washington lunch hour meeting with AIPAC operatives and an Israeli embassy official already under surveillance as espionage suspects.

An Army reserve colonel and former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who had previously served at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, Franklin had been in the news before.  It already had come to light in early August, 2003, that he and Douglas Feith's top Middle East specialist, Harold Rhode, had been meeting with Manuchar Ghorbanifar, the international weapons merchant and notoriously unreliable Middle East "intelligence asset" connected to Iran.

Rhode was a protege of Michael Ledeen, who as a National Security Council consultant in the mid-1980s introduced Ghorbanifar to NSC aide Col. Oliver North and others in the opening stages of what became the Iran-Contra affair (the secret sale of U.S. weapons to the Islamic Republic, with the proceeds going to fund murderous counterrevolutionaries in Nicaragua).  Ledeen, an influential Neocon war hawk and pro-Likud zealot, reopened the Ghorbanifar channel with Feith's staff.

According to the Washington Monthly, Franklin was part of an unauthorized back-channel between Iranian dissidents and Feith's office.  Franklin and Feith deputy Harold Rhode were involved in ongoing meetings with Ghorbanifar and other Iranian exiles.  Ledeen acted as intermediary.  The first meeting, in Rome in December, 2001 included Franklin, Rhode and Ledeen, who organized the meeting.  (According to UPI, Ledeen was then working for Feith as a consultant.)

Present with Ghorbanifar were number of dissident Iranians.  Nicolo Pollari, the head of Italy's military intelligence agency, SISMI, attended, as did the Italian Minister of Defense Antonio Martino, a well-known Neoconservative ally.

These intelligence sharing meetings on Iran and Iraq reflected a bitter administration power struggle, pitting officials at Rumsfeld's DoD pushing for a hard-line policy of "regime change" in Iran, against others, bypassed career officers at the State Department and the CIA, who have been disturbed by the course and direction taken by the Neocon hawks surrounding Bush. The DoD-Ghorbanifar meetings suggest the possibility that a rogue faction at the Pentagon was trying to work outside normal U.S. foreign policy channels to advance a "regime change" agenda not approved by the foreign policy establishment.

What's the Goal?

The big picture here is that, as in the Iran-Contra scandal of the '80s, key members of the administration have been engaging in illegal actions to secretly influence U.S. foreign policy.  But in what direction?

Clearly the pro-Likud Neocons, from Wolfowitz on down, have had their sights fixed on Iran. Long-time advocates of "regime change" in Teheran, they've sought to steer the United States in a more aggressive confrontational direction toward Israel's remaining major foe and "Axis of Evil" state.

What else was going on?  Apparently, there was a brief period of warming relations between Washington and Teheran in late 2003.  Negotiations regarding the swap of al Quaeda higher-ups, were under way. The Jerusalem Post, viewing the developments in a positive light, revealed that at least one of the meetings with Rhode, Ledeen, Franklin and Ghorbanifar was quite specific in its attempt to torpedo better U.S./Iran relations:

The purpose of that meeting was to undermine a pending deal that the White House had been negotiating with the Iranian government.  At the time, Iran had considered turning over five high level al-Quaeda operatives, among them Osama bin Laden's son and Abu Mussab al Zarqawi, the new "bogey man" currently being blamed for much of the anti-occupation violence in Iraq, in exchange for Washington dropping its support for Mujahadeen Khalq (MEK), the Iraq-based rebel Iranian group long sheltered by Saddam Hussein.  Iran was reported to have Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in custody in summer of 2003, and to be entirely willing to hand him over to the United States in return for some high-ranking MEK members.  But the neocon network, including Franklin, Rhode and Ledeen, intervened to stop the trade.  It would have led to better U.S.-Iran relations, which they wanted to forestall.

Franklin answered directly to Deputy Undersecretary of Defense William Luti, a former Newt Gingrich staffer and early advocate of military action against Iraq. Luti came to light in early 2003 after The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh wrote about his intelligence work in the Office of Special Plans (OSP).  According to Hersh, Luti and his OSP cohorts were charged with digging up intelligence on Iraq that would support the administration's arguments for going to war. Conceived by Paul Wolfowitz, the OSP began work soon after 9/11 and produced the intelligence reviews that shaped U.S. policy toward Iraq and helped move public opinion toward war.

Hersh tells us that the OSP "...brought about a crucial change of direction in the American intelligence community;" that by late 2002, the OSP had overshadowed the CIA and the Pentagon's own Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to become Bush's main intelligence source on Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" and on Hussein's alleged Al Quaeda connections.

The OSP, Hersh told us, relied in part on information provided by Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, now fallen from favor.  (At some point, Chalabi became a liability for his former Neocon patrons, but exactly why is part of the story that hasn't come out yet.) Franklin's colleague Rhode had previously acted as a liaison between Feith's office and Chalabi.

Far from some low level bureaucrat, Franklin was the Pentagon's top Iran analyst, specifically brought into the Office of the Secretary of Defense because he shared the pro-Likud neocon worldview of Feith, Luti and Wolfowitz.  He was very much part of their inner circle.

What It All Means

So how do we decipher all these apparent machinations without lapsing into conspiracy fantasies of the kind which fascinate the anti-Semites of the paranoid right?  Congressional Democrats and curious journalists have long asked questions about the central role Feith's office may have played in a range of dubious intelligence enterprises.  It pushed claims about a supposed Saddam-al Qaeda partnership and overblown estimates foisted on them by Chalabi of alleged Iraqi stocks of WMDs.

In 1996, Feith and his long-time Neocon crony Richard Perle helped prepare a policy plan, "A Clean Break," prepared for Israel's then Likud prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.  Calling for a "Greater Israel," it called for a much more aggressive policy toward Iraq and Syria and for ending peace talks with the Palestinians, an end to the "Peace Process."

The Franklin "scandal," immediately referred to by some as "AIPACgate," suggests that bypassed elements of the national security state bureaucracies at the CIA, which some Neocons blame for the disaster in Iraq, and the FBI, frustrated by three decades of spying investigations squelch for political reasons, may have decided to go after what some clearly view as a "Washington's fifth column."

The "leak" of Franklin's meetings with Israel's AIPAC go-betweens, seemingly coming from John Ashcroft's Justice Department, may have served to kill an ongoing investigation, one that might have implicated Bush administration higher-ups in this election year. The press, with few exceptions, let the matter slide as a minor, short lived footnote to "business as usual" in Washington.

What remains clear is that the DoD Neocons, desiring a broader confrontation with Iran, have taken it upon themselves to circumvent normal foreign policy channels.  In the process, they and their media allies and apologists have succeeded to inflame anti-Semitism, encourage probable future terrorist attacks in the United States, and further destabilize the entire Middle East.

Selected Sources

  • "Spy suspect was involved in Iran policy debate," The New York Times, Friday, September 3, 2004.
  • "Wider FBI Probe Of Pentagon Leaks Includes Chalabi," Washington Post, Friday, September 3, 2004.
  • "Leak Inquiry Includes Iran Experts in Administration," Washington Post, September 4, 2004.
  • Joshua Micah Marshall, Laura Rozen and Paul Glastris, "Iran-Contra II? —Fresh scrutiny on a rogue Pentagon operation," Washington Monthly, September, 2004.
  • For additional pieces by Rozen and Marshall on their respective blog sites: www.warandpiece.com and www.talkingpointsmemo.com Seymour Hersh, "Selective Intelligence," The New Yorker, May 12, 2003.
  • Jim Lobe, "How neo-cons influence the Pentagon..."  Asia Times, August 8, 2003.
  • Curt Anderson, "White House said to have learned of Israel spy investigation in 2001" Associated Press, September 4, 2004.
  • Juan Cole, "Spy Scandal's Roots are Deep," progressivetrail.org/articles/040902Cole.shtml, and various articles on Informed Comment (web log site for Juan Cole, www.juancole.com)
  • "Spy probe tests U.S.-Israeli ties," by Faye Bowers, Christian Science Monitor 08/30/04.
  • "2d probe at the Pentagon examines actions on Iraq, The Boston Globe 08/31/04
  • Mark Mazzetti and Richard B. Schmitt, "Report on Iran Key to Spying Inquiry," Mark Mazzetti and Richard B. Schmitt, Los Angeles Times 08/29/04; "FBI Questions Israeli Lobbyists in Spying Probe," Los Angeles Times 08/31/04.
  • "Israel's Albatross: U.S. Neocons," by Robert Scheer, Los Angeles Times 08/31/04.  (Also at www.workingforchange.com/article.cfm?itemid=17574)
  • Ha'aretz (Israel): Articles by Aluf Benn and Nathan Guttman, August 29-31, 2004 (www.haaretzdaily.com)
  • Jerusalem Post (www.jpost.com): "Shalom: Franklin affair is 'media nonsense,'" by Janine Zacharia and Herb Keinon, 08/28/04.  "Who is Larry Franklin?" 08/28/04.  Editorial, "The AIPAC kerfluffle," 08/29/04.
  • Stephen Green, "Serving Two Flags—The Bush Neo-Cons and Israel" www.counterpunch.org, September 3, 2004.

ATC 113, November-December 2004