By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 6, 2005
A Defense Department analyst pleaded guilty yesterday to passing government secrets to two employees of a pro-Israel lobbying group and revealed for the first time that he also gave classified information directly to an Israeli government official in Washington.
Lawrence A. Franklin told a judge in U.S. District Court in Alexandria that he met at least eight times with Naor Gilon, who was the political officer at the Israeli Embassy before being recalled last summer.
The guilty plea and Franklin's account appeared to cast doubt on long-standing denials by Israeli officials that they engage in any intelligence activities in the United States. The possibility of continued Israeli spying in Washington has been a sensitive subject between the two governments since Jonathan J. Pollard, a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst, admitted to spying for Israel in 1987 and was sentenced to life in prison.
David Siegel, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy, said Israeli officials have been approached by U.S. investigators and are cooperating. "We have full confidence in our diplomats, who are dedicated professionals who conduct themselves in full accordance with established diplomatic practices," Siegel said.
Court documents filed along with Franklin's plea said he provided classified data -- including information about a Middle Eastern country's activities in Iraq and weapons tests conducted by a foreign country -- to an unnamed "foreign official."
The country was not named, but as Franklin entered his plea, he disclosed that some of the material he gave the lobbyists related to Iran. His attorneys stopped him from speaking further, and prosecutors immediately accused Franklin of revealing classified information in court.
Franklin said he passed the information because he was "frustrated" with the direction of U.S. policy and thought he could influence it by having them relay the data through "back channels" to officials on the National Security Council. He said he never intended to harm the United States, "not even for a second," and that he received far more information from Gilon than he gave. "I knew in my heart that his government already had the information," he said.
Franklin, 58, a specialist on Iran, pleaded guilty to two conspiracy counts and a third charge of possessing classified documents. As part of the plea agreement, Franklin has agreed to cooperate in the larger federal investigation.
Legal experts called the plea a major development in the long-running investigation of whether U.S. secrets were passed to the Israeli government. Franklin said he disclosed classified data to two former employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Those employees, Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, have been charged in what prosecutors said was a broad conspiracy to obtain and illegally pass classified information to foreign officials and news reporters.
Franklin probably will become the star witness against Rosen and Weissman. "This is not good news for the other defendants or for AIPAC," said Michael Greenberger, a former Justice Department official who heads the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland.
Prosecutors have said they have no immediate plans to charge anyone else, but Franklin's cooperation could change that, said Preston Burton, a Washington defense lawyer with long experience in espionage cases.
"Espionage debriefings are exhaustive and meticulous," said Burton, who is a former law partner of a Franklin attorney, Plato Cacheris, but is not involved in the Franklin case.
Also uncertain is how yesterday's developments will affect U.S. ties with Israel. The case has complicated relations between the two countries, which are close allies, and angered many supporters of the American Israel committee, which is considered one of Washington's most influential lobbying organizations.
Gilon is a career Israeli foreign service officer who spent three years in Washington focusing on weapons proliferation issues. His recall to Israel was unrelated to the investigation, Siegel said, and he is awaiting a new foreign posting.
One of Rosen's attorneys, Abbe Lowell, said Franklin's plea "has no impact on our case because a government employee's actions in dealing with classified information is simply not the same as a private person, whether that person is a reporter or a lobbyist."
Rosen, 63, of Silver Spring, is charged with two counts related to unlawful disclosure of national defense information obtained from Franklin and other unidentified government officials since 1999 on topics including Iran, Saudi Arabia and al Qaeda. Rosen was the American Israel committee's director of foreign policy issues and was instrumental in making the committee a formidable political force.
Weissman, 53, of Bethesda, faces one count of conspiracy to illegally communicate national defense information. His attorneys did not return calls late last night. American Israel Public Affairs Committee officials declined comment.
Franklin pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiring to communicate secret information and a third charge of keeping numerous classified documents at his West Virginia home. He said he took the documents home to keep up his expertise and prepare for "point-blank questions" from his bosses, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
The Defense Department suspended Franklin, who said in court that he works as a waiter and bartender and at a racetrack. He faces up to 25 years in prison at his sentencing Jan. 20.