The FBI investigation into whether classified information was passed to the Israeli government is focused on a Pentagon analyst who has served as an Air Force reservist in Israel, and the probe has been broadened in recent days to include interviews at the State and Defense departments and with Middle Eastern affairs specialists outside government, officials and others familiar with the inquiry said yesterday.
At the center of the investigation, sources said, is Lawrence A. Franklin, a career analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency who specializes in Iran and has served in the Air Force Reserve, rising to colonel. Early in the Bush administration, Franklin moved from the DIA to the Pentagon's policy branch headed by Undersecretary Douglas J. Feith, where he continued his work on Iranian affairs.
Officials and colleagues said yesterday that Franklin had traveled to Israel, including during duty in the Air Force Reserve, where he served as a specialist in foreign political-military affairs. He may have been based at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv on those tours, said a former co-worker at the DIA, but was never permanently assigned there.
Messages left at Franklin's Pentagon office were not returned yesterday, and nobody answered the door at his house in West Virginia. No one has been charged in the case.
FBI officials have been quietly investigating for months whether Franklin gave classified information -- which officials said included a draft of a presidential directive on U.S. policies toward Iran -- to two Israeli lobbyists here who are alleged to have passed it on to the Israeli government. Officials said it was not yet clear whether the probe would become an espionage case or perhaps would result in lesser charges such as improper release of classified information or mishandling of government documents.
On Friday, Pentagon officials said Franklin was not in a position to have significant influence over U.S. policy. "The Defense Department has been cooperating with the Department of Justice for an extended period of time," a Pentagon statement said. "It is the DOD's understanding that the investigation within DOD is very limited in its scope."
At the Pentagon and elsewhere in Washington yesterday, people touched by the case said they were baffled by aspects of it.
Colleagues said they were stunned to hear Franklin was suspected of giving secret information to a foreign government. And foreign policy specialists said they were skeptical that the pro-Israel group under FBI scrutiny, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, would jeopardize its work with classified documents from a midlevel bureaucrat when it could find out almost anything it wanted to by calling top officials in the Bush administration.
"The whole thing makes no sense to me," said Dennis Ross, special envoy on the Arab-Israeli peace process in the first Bush administration and the Clinton presidency. "The Israelis have access to all sorts of people. They have access in Congress and in the administration. They have people who talk about these things," said Ross, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office issued a statement yesterday saying Israel was not involved in the matter and conducts no espionage in the United States. AIPAC has strongly denied any wrongdoing and said it is "cooperating fully" with the probe.
The FBI investigation was touched off months ago when a series of e-mails was brought to investigators' attention, said a U.S. official familiar with the case. The investigation moved into high gear in recent days, another official said. On Friday, Justice Department officials briefed some Pentagon officials about the state of the inquiry.
"I think they are at the end of their investigation and beginning to brief people in the chain of command, partly to make sure that the acts weren't authorized," one official said.
Pentagon co-workers expressed shock at the news. "It's totally astonishing to all of us who knew him," said a Defense Department co-worker who asked not to be identified because of the investigation. "He is a career guy, a mild-mannered professional. No one would think of him as evil or devious."
Franklin works in the office of William J. Luti, deputy undersecretary of defense for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs. For years a bureaucratic backwater, the office has been in the thick of the action since 2001 because it formulates Pentagon policy on Iraq. It played a central role as the U.S. military prepared for the spring 2003 invasion and since then as the Pentagon has overseen the occupation.