WASHINGTON -- The FBI arrested a Defense Department analyst on Wednesday after charging him with illegally disclosing highly classified information to employees of a powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization.
Lawrence A. Franklin, 58, was charged with sharing the contents of a secret document on threats to U.S. military forces in Iraq during a June 2003 lunch in Arlington, Va., with two senior officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
While the two men aren't named in the FBI complaint, AIPAC announced last month that it had dismissed two veterans of the group, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman. The FBI has interviewed the two men, but neither has been charged with wrongdoing.
Wednesday's arrest is the latest development in an investigation that has tarnished AIPAC, which likes to call itself the most effective lobby group in Washington, and embarrassed some of the same Pentagon officials who helped promote and plan the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.
According to officials with direct knowledge, the investigation has been under way since at least 2002 and it has involved FBI interviews with officials in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's office and elsewhere in the executive branch.
Sources close to AIPAC, insisting on anonymity, said Wednesday that government officials have told the organization that it's not a target of the probe.
Franklin, of Kearneysville, W.Va., is an Iran expert who worked in a Middle East unit at the Pentagon that repeatedly has been mired in controversy.
He appeared briefly in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., on Wednesday afternoon and was released on $100,000 bond.
Franklin's attorney, John Thorpe Richards Jr., said afterward that his client was innocent.
"He intends to plead not guilty and vigorously defend himself, and expects the judicial process to exonerate him," Richards said.
Franklin wasn't charged with espionage, a much more serious charge, but he faces up to 10 years in prison if he's convicted on the charge of improperly disclosing classified information.
"It's a serious charge" that's been used in other well-known cases of leaking government secrets, said former CIA official Rick Cinquegrana.
Franklin's is the first major case involving leaks of classified information to staunch U.S. ally Israel since 1985, when U.S. Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard was arrested and subsequently convicted of espionage.
However, it remains uncertain whether the case will have any long-term impact on U.S.-Israeli relations or on AIPAC, now that the group has distanced itself from Rosen and Weissman. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are to attend the group's annual conference in Washington later this month, AIPAC officials said.
A government affidavit that was unsealed on Wednesday provides some new clues in the case but leaves other questions answered.
Franklin, the affidavit charges, also knowingly disclosed classified U.S. information "to a foreign official and members of the media." The document, signed by FBI special agent Catherine M. Hanna, doesn't provide details.
The Israeli government has acknowledged that Franklin met with a diplomat from its embassy in Washington, Naor Gilon. But Israel has repeatedly denied involvement in the secrets case, a denial that Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom reiterated on Wednesday.
When investigators obtained a criminal search warrant and searched Franklin's West Virginia residence in June 2004, they found 83 classified documents that weren't supposed to be there and whose dates spanned three decades, Hanna said.
"The documents were stored throughout the house in open and closed storage containers with at least one document in plain view," she said.
Little concrete information has been released publicly about how the FBI probe, which the Justice Department said is continuing, began.
Nor is it clear how or why the FBI came to be surveilling the June 2003 luncheon at which Franklin allegedly shared the contents of the secret Pentagon document.
The document, which is classified "Top Secret/SCI," or "sensitive compartmented information," dealt with "potential attacks upon United States forces in Iraq," the affidavit stated. It provided no specifics.
Some U.S. officials speculate the information could in fact involve threats by Iran to Israeli agents, or their Kurdish allies, operating in northern Iraq. Israel has nurtured alliances with the Kurds for at least three decades as hedges against two major adversaries, Iraq and Iran.
Franklin allegedly told Rosen and Weissman "that the information was `highly classified' and asked them not to `use' it," the affidavit stated. It identified the two AIPAC officials only as "U.S. Person 1" and "U.S. Person 2."
Rosen's attorney, Abbe Lowell, said in a statement: "Steve Rosen never solicited, received or passed on any classified documents from Larry Franklin, and Mr. Franklin will never be able to say otherwise."
Franklin, an Air Force reserve colonel who'd served in the Defense Intelligence Agency, worked in the Near East and South Asia branch of the Pentagon's policy office, headed by departing Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith.
Feith's group has been criticized for failing to plan adequately for the aftermath of the Iraq invasion and has been charged by some State Department and intelligence officials with trying to run its own foreign policy.
Franklin's name first surfaced in news reports when it became known that he and another Pentagon official, Harold Rhode, held covert meetings beginning in 2001 with Iranian arms merchant Manucher Ghorbanifar, a figure from the Iran-Contra arms scandal who was twice labeled untruthful by the CIA.
© 2005 KR Washington Bureau and wire service sources