In May, Stephen Green was hard at work campaigning for a seat in Vermont's House of Representatives when he got a phone call. The last person the 64-year-old former United Nations official, then preoccupied with health-care policy issues, expected to hear from was an FBI agent, who asked if he could come to Washington to chat with him about the history of Israeli espionage efforts against the United States.
As the author of two books on U.S.-Israeli relations, Green knew something about the subject. Still, the phone call seemed to come out of the blue. Green quickly discovered, however, that the FBI had a keen interest in the subject. Federal agents were involved in an investigation into an alleged Israeli "mole" in the office of Douglas Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy.
Early reports suggested that the FBI had wiretap evidence that a veteran Iran analyst working in Feith's office at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Larry Franklin, may have passed a classified draft of a National Security Presidential Directive on Iran to an official working for the pro-Israel lobbying organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Members of the organization, in turn, were said to have passed the document on to Israel. (AIPAC officials strongly deny the accusations.)
But as Green spoke with investigators, he realized the agents were investigating far more than Franklin.
"Larry Franklin's name never came up, but several others did," he said.
Green, as the FBI agents knew, had a special expertise in the field of Israeli espionage in the United States. In the 1980s, he had taken time off from his job at the UN to look into the U.S.–Israeli "special relationship." He spent years combing through public records, filing and litigating Freedom of Information Act requests, and tracking down current and retired government officials. He eventually wrote two books, Taking Sides: America's Secret Relations With Israel and Living By The Sword: America and Israel in the Middle East. The Times of London and Foreign Affairs commended his work, describing it as "praised by those who believe the United States has damaged its own security, and Israel's too, by uncritical and often secret support of Israel's actions, no matter how extreme." Yet, as Foreign Affairs reported, Green's work also caused "sputter[ing] with indignation" among "those who believe… that American and Israeli interests are identical."
Green returned to the UN in 1990 and followed the subject from there. Earlier this year, he published a piece in the newsletter CounterPunch, recapping previously reported -- though long-forgotten -- government investigations of prominent neoconservatives for their suspected espionage or improper information-sharing with Israel. And that's where the FBI comes in.
According to the FBI agents who contacted Green, as he recounts, the article had come to their attention when one of Green's sources -- a retired national security official they were interviewing -- shared it with them.
And so on June 22, Green found himself sitting across an oval-shaped conference table from two FBI agents at an undisclosed northern Virginia venue. The meeting lasted nearly four hours.
"They were extraordinarily well-informed; it was apparent they've been at this for awhile," Green says. "I asked them if there was a current reason for them asking questions about things that go back over 30 years, and they sort of looked at each other and said, 'Yes, it's a present issue,' but wouldn't say specifically what. Though they did ask very specific questions about one individual in particular."
Green said the agents asked about several current or former Pentagon officials such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Michael Ledeen, and Stephen Bryen.
"The tenor of their questions was such that it defined where these people were in terms of the nature of their focus," Green says. "They also asked about a couple other Office of Special Plans people, including Harold Rhode. Ironically, about the only name that didn't come up was Larry Franklin."
Regardless of the status of the investigation, something seemed a bit fishy. After all, Israel -- one of the United States' closest allies, with deep support in the Bush Administration and especially at the Defense Department -- hardly needs a Pentagon-embedded spy to get access to interagency debates about U.S. policy to Iran, as observers have pointed out. And compared with the information on arms shipments that former US Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard passed on to Israel in the 1980s, a draft of a document about U.S. policy toward Iran would hardly seem like the crown jewels.
Yet, as Newsweek has reported, Franklin had come to the FBI's attention a year and a half ago, when he walked in on a lunch with an Israeli diplomat and an AIPAC lobbyist, both of whom were under FBI surveillance for a year. In addition, Newsweek reported that when news of the investigation surfaced, Franklin had already been cooperating with the FBI for several weeks and had reportedly led FBI agents to those who may have received information from him.
The previous FBI investigation came into focus only on September 1, when The Washington Post reported that for two years, the FBI has conducted a counterintelligence investigation into whether AIPAC has forwarded “highly classified materials from the National Security Agency . . . to Israel.” The Post piece describes Franklin's alleged role as merely “coincidental” to the larger FBI probe of alleged intelligence-passing through AIPAC to Israel.
Both AIPAC and Tel Aviv vehemently deny any wrongdoing. And indeed, the Israeli diplomat who acknowledges meeting with Franklin and AIPAC -- Naor Gilon, the Israeli embassy's No. 3 official and a specialist on Iran's nuclear program -- returned to Washington on August 29 from a summer vacation in Israel. He admits that he met with Franklin, but insists he's done nothing wrong.
A source familiar with the investigation told The American Prospect that when news of the investigation broke, the Justice Department had been preparing a request to the State Department to have an Israeli diplomat -- by implication Gilon -- declared persona non grata for allegedly having received classified U.S. intelligence from AIPAC sources.
Furthermore, a September 1 report by NBC speculated that the reason the Israelis may have broken their declared post-Pollard policy of not spying on the United States is because of Israel's preeminent concern about Iran's nuclear program, and its view that the United States may not be prepared to act assertively enough to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The Post piece seems to imply that Franklin is more of an anti-Tehran zealot than anything else and wasn't engaging in espionage per se. But as the Post article and the June meeting between Green and the FBI seem to indicate, the FBI is looking into the possibility there's been communication between Israeli elements and U.S. officials, including several who work for Feith and have access to sensitive intelligence on Iran and its nuclear program.
Jason Vest is Prospect senior correspondent. Laura Rozen reports on national security issues from Washington, D.C. and for her weblog, War and Piece.