FBI counterintelligence investigators have in recent weeks questioned current and former U.S. officials about whether a small group of Iran specialists at the Pentagon and in Vice President Cheney's office may have been involved in passing classified information to an Iraqi politician or a U.S. lobbying group allied with Israel, according to sources familiar with or involved in the case.
In their interviews, the FBI agents have also named two Israeli diplomats stationed in Washington and asked whether they would be willing recipients of sensitive intelligence, the sources added.
The investigators have asked questions about personnel in the office of Pentagon Undersecretary for Policy Douglas J. Feith as well as members of the influential Defense Policy Board, an advisory panel for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, according to former U.S. officials who have been questioned and others familiar with the case.
Investigators have specifically asked about a group of neoconservatives involved in defense issues, including Feith, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, Iraq and Iran specialist Harold Rhode and others at the Pentagon. FBI agents also have asked current and former officials about Richard Perle of the defense board and David Wurmser, an Iran specialist and principal deputy assistant for national security affairs in Cheney's office, according to sources familiar with or involved in the case.
"The initial interest was: Do you believe certain people would spy for Israel and pass secret information?" said one source interviewed by the FBI about the defense officials.
It remains unclear, however, how specific investigators' suspicions have become. And one official, a Feith ally, has said the investigation is an effort by some intelligence officials to discredit Pentagon hawks.
The sources interviewed for this article requested anonymity because it involves classified information or because of the ongoing investigation.
Perle, Rhode and Wolfowitz did not return telephone calls placed to their homes and offices late Friday. Reached at home, Feith declined comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
But Pentagon officials insisted yesterday that FBI questions about key policymakers did not mean they were the subjects of the intelligence leak investigation. Senior Pentagon officials have said they were told by the FBI that the investigation is focused on just one suspect in the Defense Department, Lawrence A. Franklin, an Iran specialist in Feith's office.
The FBI investigation first came to light last week with reports of a probe into whether Franklin passed a draft presidential directive on Iran to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and whether the directive was then passed to Israel, sources have said. AIPAC has strongly denied any involvement in espionage.
A federal grand jury in Alexandria may take up the Franklin case as early as next week, law enforcement sources said.
The questioning of Franklin is a recent part of an investigation that dates back more than two years and includes diverse threads, U.S. officials and people close to the case said. One aspect of the probe concerns AIPAC and another looks at whether intelligence on Iran ended up in the hands of Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, a longtime Pentagon favorite once considered a possible replacement for Saddam Hussein.
Iran has been a particularly controversial issue within the Bush administration, which still does not have a formal policy more than 3 1/2 years after taking office. A small group of Pentagon neoconservatives opposed a draft directive because it did not support a change of governments in Tehran, which they advocated, current and former U.S. officials said.
The officials whose names came up during questioning have strong ties to Israel. They also share a long-standing position on Iran and other radical regimes. Wurmser, Feith and Perle were co-authors of a 1996 policy paper for then-Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu titled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm." It called for removing Hussein from power in Iraq as part of a broad strategy to transform the region and remove radical regimes.