The FBI has interviewed several senior Pentagon officials in recent days in connection with an investigation of a Defense Department analyst who is suspected of providing classified documents to Israel but has been cooperating with investigators for several weeks, government officials said yesterday.
Douglas J. Feith, undersecretary for policy, and Peter Rodman, assistant secretary for international security affairs, are among those who met with FBI agents on Sunday and Monday about the case, which has focused on contacts between a lower-level Pentagon analyst, Lawrence A. Franklin, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), officials said.
Higher-ranking government officials have also been briefed about the FBI investigation in recent days, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Powell was briefed over the weekend during a telephone call by James B. Comey, the deputy attorney general, and told his senior aides at a meeting yesterday to "cooperate in any way with any requests that might come from the investigators."
U.S. government officials familiar with the Pentagon interviews, who declined to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the case, characterized them as an attempt by FBI investigators to determine whether Franklin received authorization from any superior to engage in the actions that investigators are probing. The FBI has been forced to accelerate its investigation since the case broke into public view through media reports Friday.
Franklin is suspected of having passed classified information -- including a draft presidential directive on U.S. policy toward Iran -- to AIPAC, the major Israeli lobbying group in Washington, which in turn may have passed it to Israel. AIPAC and Israel have denied the allegations.
Law enforcement officials said yesterday that federal prosecutors in Alexandria were closer to filing charges in the case and that Franklin -- who has been cooperating with FBI agents from the Washington field office -- could be among those arrested. It was not clear whether Franklin would agree -- or be allowed -- to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for cooperation.
"It appears they're wrapping this thing up, and so they were checking with the chain of command to make sure no one had authorized him to do any of this," said one official, who spoke on the condition he not be identified further.
Franklin, who has not responded to repeated requests for comment at his office and home, first came to the attention of the FBI more than a year ago, when he showed up at a lunch between an Israeli diplomat and an AIPAC official that was being monitored by FBI counterintelligence agents, two law enforcement officials said yesterday.
Law enforcement and defense officials have declined to say what that original investigation was about, and whether it continues apart from the Franklin probe or has been abandoned. One law enforcement official who has been briefed on the Franklin case said it is part of a broader FBI inquiry, but the official declined to elaborate.
Defense officials familiar with the case emphasized yesterday that the number of those at the Pentagon approached by the FBI should not be taken as a sign that the investigation was widening. They characterized the meetings as part interview, part briefing session, used by FBI authorities not only to gain information for their probe but also to brief senior defense officials about the status of the case, which came as a surprise to many at the Pentagon.
The list of those interviewed over the past several days runs from William J. Luti, who heads the section on Near East and South Asian affairs where Franklin is assigned as a desk officer on Iran, through Rodman and Feith. All told the FBI that they did not give Franklin permission to give AIPAC or the Israelis any of the material at issue, officials said.
At the Pentagon, before Friday's disclosure, only Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and department lawyers had been informed of the investigation, which has been underway for more than a year, officials said.
"The FBI is focused on one suspect," one official said. "The briefings and interviews that they're doing have been a routine part of their probe -- not a broadening of the list of suspects."
At the same time, several defense officials said the FBI has not told them everything that investigators have learned in the course of the probe, making it difficult to be certain of the outcome.
The premature disclosure has caused problems for investigators, according to numerous law enforcement officials speaking on the condition of anonymity because the probe is ongoing.
"This has severely hampered their investigation," one law enforcement official said. "It's impossible to tell what might have been lost because of all this."
An Israeli official in Washington said the embassy has not received any formal notice from U.S. authorities that there is an investigation of the Franklin case. He also said reports of the case were growing increasingly exaggerated.
"Given the level of dialogue between the United States and Israel, this makes little sense," the official said. "We basically pick up the phone and call when we want to discuss policy. We have formal and transparent and open discussions on all these issues. It's not like there are differences on these subjects."
Naor Gilon, the embassy's top political diplomat, who has been identified in several media accounts as having met with Franklin, said in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Maariv published yesterday that "my hands are clean."
"All my activities are well within the parameters of accepted diplomatic norms and procedures," he said, adding that he was concerned the scandal will affect his work in Washington: "Everyone would think twice now before talking to me."
In Jerusalem yesterday, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told members of the Israeli cabinet that there was no truth to allegations of spying and said the embassy "never deviated either from diplomatic norms or from the good and open dialogue between Israel and the U.S.," according to an official account of his statements.
An American not in government who was interviewed by the FBI last week described the line of questioning as a "fishing expedition" that did not include any mention of Franklin or Iran.
The FBI appeared more concerned about people this person knows who were looking for access to intelligence or classified information.
"I was left startled that in a town of award-winning journalists, law enforcement officials were asking if anyone I knew might be interested in classified information," the person said. "It was a fishing expedition. It was an extremely odd conversation."
Staff writers Molly Moore in Jerusalem and Robin Wright and Jerry Markon in Washington contributed to this report.