Not spies after all?how the Washington Post got it wrong

Posted: Apr 12, 2005 12:00 AM

Stories on Larry Franklin, dual loyalties, and espionage for Israel look more far-fetched with each passing day.

In an online chat at the Washington Post?s web site recently, the paper?s intelligence reporter Dana Priest said that there had been ?nothing new? to report in the investigation of low-level Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin?whose case dominated the Post?s front page over the course of a full week last fall??or we would have written something.?

Well, something ?new? has happened: the passage of time has largely debunked the Post?s breathless coverage. 

From August 28 through September 3 last fall?one week, from Saturday to Friday?the Post deluged readers with tales of alleged espionage for Israel.  The story was sexy: an employee at a branch of the Pentagon headed by a Jew that was supposedly too chummy with Israel had passed classified intelligence to the Jewish state. 

The Post didn?t stop there.  Over seven days, the paper?s coverage even broadened to report that investigators had ?specifically asked about? five named individuals in, or close to, the administration.  All were Jews, and the Post reported, all ?have strong ties to Israel.? 

What the Post omitted was that there was no actual investigation into these five Jews, just they had been ?asked about.?  About what exactly was also never mentioned.

Most of the stories that week played up the question of whether dual loyalties had driven Mr. Franklin, or possibly others in the administration with, ahem, a ?particular interest? in ?assisting Israel,? to spy for the Jewish state.  Typical was the following: that ?others speculated? that ?the tight connections between the Israelis and Feith?s policy office may have led officials to become sloppy about rules barring release of sensitive information.? 

The Mr. Feith referenced would be Douglas Feith, former head of the Pentagon?s civilian policy shop.  He is Jewish, and according to the Post, has ?strong ties to Israel.?

Adding to the intrigue was the Post?s tone of urgency.  The opening paragraph of the initial story was explicit: ?arrests in the case could come as early as next week.?  Subsequent stories sounded a similar note.

For those counting along: one week, seven stories.  (One was a Sunday reprint of the initial article).  Of those six distinct stories, three landed on the front page. 

Curiously, of those six, the Post?s State Department reporter, Robin Wright, had a byline on three and a credit line on one.  No other reporter was as involved.  Why was the Post?s primary reporter on an FBI investigation of a Pentagon employee the person assigned to State? 

Foggy Bottom careerists, who almost certainly were among the unnamed ?officials? the Post quoted at length taking digs at President Bush and those in the administration with a ?particular interest? in ?assisting Israel,? were almost entirely opposed to Bush?s reelection.  Their handiwork could be found throughout the Big Media in the form of anonymous quotes blasting Bush right up until the election.  They also happen to be mortal policy enemies of Mr. Feith and other so-called neoconservatives.

Now that the election is history?as are the secretary and deputy secretary of state who allowed such anonymous character assassinations?the smearing has stopped.  No stories have run since September.

To be fair, another plausible theory is that Ms. Wright?known for being aggressive?simply out-hustled her colleagues on the intelligence and Pentagon beats.  But why is she not as aggressive with a new development in the case?

Here?s what loyal readers of the Post won?t know: Mr. Franklin is back working for the Department of Defense.  And he still has not been arrested, let alone charged.  His security clearances remain pulled, but it would seem significant that after using up a combination of vacation and leave?though he was never suspended?he?s back at work.

Instead, Post readers likely believe what the paper had slickly implied on August 31: evidence against Mr. Franklin, who had been cooperating at that time, was so strong that he might not even ?be allowed? to strike a plea bargain, an option routinely available even to clearly guilty parties.

That Mr. Franklin remains on DOD?s payroll?again, without his clearances?is by no means a full exoneration.  But it is newsworthy nonetheless, especially to an outlet so willing to report baseless speculation.

Clearly, the Post was wrong about impending arrest and prosecution.  And the fact that he is still at work could?and to average readers, probably would?be taken as a sign that there is not overwhelming evidence of espionage and that he is not considered a particularly grievous threat to national security.

But obviously, the latest development is not nearly as sexy as the Post?s previous scintillating reporting.

Seemingly unaware that Mr. Franklin was back at work, Ms. Priest wrote in her online chat to a reader not to ?hold your breath for lots of news.?  She explained that the case ?may never be officially closed.  They often are not.?

Then again, even if the case closes and most or all of the parties tarred with the accusations of dual loyalties and espionage are cleared, Post readers shouldn?t ?hold their breath? waiting for the paper to tell them.