Not espionage after all

Posted: May 25, 2005 12:00 AM

When Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin was finally charged with passing classified information on May 3, the headlines, at least in part, should have read, ?Franklin not charged with espionage.?

Such was the media build-up last fall; almost every story on Mr. Franklin had a headline or subhead that contained the words ?espionage? or ?spying.?  But in spilling the beans on an espionage investigation, the FBI (or possibly another entity) was itself leaking highly classified information.  What the media never did was stop to ask: why?

Charges that have been formally leveled against Mr. Franklin are not inconsequential.  He is charged with unauthorized disclosure of classified material for allegedly disclosing classified information to two U.S. lobbyists who work for the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC).

But what the charge wasn?t was espionage.  It was far, far less sexy.  Unauthorized disclosure?as any reader of the New York Times or the Washington Post knows?is also far, far more common.  Which doesn?t excuse Mr. Franklin?s allegedly illegal behavior, but it does put it in a far different context.

Gone would have been the sexy headlines that someone in the ?pro-Israel? division at the Pentagon was about to be arrested for ?espionage? on behalf of the Jewish state.  Gone would have been the stories?particularly by the Post?that tarred named individuals, all Jews and all Bush supporters, with unsubstantiated allegations that they, too, might be involved in spying for Israel.

If everything alleged by the government is true, then Mr. Franklin has committed a serious crime, one which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.  But it is a vastly different charge than what unnamed investigators seemed certain of last fall.  Mr. Franklin, ironically, is now charged with the same behavior that most likely was committed by someone in the FBI: unauthorized disclosure of classified information.

The details of an espionage investigation are highly classified, for obvious reasons.  As maligned as CBS News is, it is unlikely that it would have broken the story last August without solid, well-placed sourcing.

From an August 27 article on ?the FBI believes it has ?solid? evidence that the suspected mole supplied Israel with classified materials.?  The evidence was described as coming from ?wiretaps, undercover surveillance and photography? that further showed the information being passed from two AIPAC officials ?on to the Israelis.?

A front-page story in the Washington Post the next day added urgency by reporting, ?arrests in the case could come as early as next week.?   Notice ?arrests.?  Had the Post been tipped off to one arrest, the word used would not have been plural.  And though that first article left open the possibility that Franklin might not be charged with espionage, subsequent Post stories later in the same week implied that the FBI might be on the verge of unraveling an entire network of dual loyalty spies for the Jewish state.  To date, it appears that not even an investigation into those named individuals has been launched.

As leaked, it certainly sounded like espionage: classified information going through an intermediary from Mr. Franklin to Israel.  Reports in the New York Times and elsewhere further indicate that neither AIPAC nor its two former officials are targets of the investigation anymore.  If indeed they did pass classified information to a foreign government, though, then why not?

If anything, the May 3 indictment paints a picture of Mr. Franklin as sloppy and careless, not as a spy.  He allegedly had some 83 classified documents in his home?a serious violation for one, let alone 83 (albeit over 30 years)?yet that implies someone who lacks proper respect for classification.

What seems at least as likely a theory as any other is that Mr. Franklin was attempting to harness the formidable lobbying power of AIPAC.  He may have believed that by divulging some information, he could motivate the officials to take his view and twist arms to get the White House to finally take a tougher line on Iran.  But until the wiretap of the fateful lunchtime conversation is aired in court, the public simply won?t know.

Such a theory would help explain why espionage was not charged.  Espionage requires that classified information is collected at the behest of, or with the intent to benefit, a foreign power.

But Mr. Franklin?s name will forever be linked to espionage?because a pliant press regurgitated exactly what it was fed.  Why didn?t the media ask why?  Was the FBI trying to get a plea deal more to its liking?  Or to taint a potential jury pool? 

And what about political motivations from leakers at State and CIA who jumped on the bandwagon to suggest that ?certain people? who have a ?particular interest? in ?assisting Israel? might, too, be spies for the Jewish state? 

Those smear-and-run victims?named on the front page of the Post?might have it worst of all: they might never be even formally investigated, yet which media outlet will help them get their reputations back?