With friends like these…

Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith

Journalists often gauge the importance of a story by the outcry that greets its publication. So it was last week, when investigators leaked information that implicated Pentagon officials in a burgeoning spy scandal involving senior pro-Israel Pentagon officials, analysts for the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and at least one diplomat from the Israeli embassy in Washington. The howls of protest could be heard all the way to Tel Aviv before echoing back to Washington: the reports were “baseless” and “ludicrous,” an Israeli government spokesman said. “Any allegation of criminal conduct by AIPAC or our employees is false and baseless,” an AIPAC press release claimed.

That’s not what the FBI has said. According to investigators, Pentagon official Lawrence Franklin is suspected of turning over classified materials to Steve Rosen, an AIPAC official - who then passed it on to Naor Gilan, an official of the Israeli embassy. Franklin, an analyst in the Pentagon policy office (which is run by pro-Israel neo-conservative Douglas Feith, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy), has regular access to classified materials, and allegedly passed the Israelis - through AIPAC - a draft policy paper on Iran. For many pro-Israeli policy officials in Washington, the FBI investigation was puzzling: Israel has regular and open access to White House policy officials. If Ariel Sharon has a question on what the US is going to do in the Middle East all he has to do is pick up the telephone and call George Bush. “The Israelis have access to all sorts of people. They have access in Congress and in the administration. They have people who talk about these things,” former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross says.

In fact, however, the FBI investigation has inadvertently revealed a subtle, but significant, divide among Israeli and American officials. While it is true that Israel and the United States coordinate their policies at the highest levels - Dick Cheney often holds talks with Israeli politician Natan Sharansky while former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is viewed as one of the most influential men in Washington - that cooperation does not extend much beyond the Oval Office.

“Our access in Washington has been shut down, especially on the most sensitive matters,” a senior Israeli intelligence official said last week. “We just don’t have the access that we once had.” This is a stunning admission, but one that makes perfect sense given the most recent history of U.S.-Israeli relations. “We were shut out [of sensitive intelligence sharing] the first minute after a report circulated that we were responsible for ‘doping’ US assessments on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction,” this senior Israeli official claims. “So it stands to reason, doesn’t it, that we would recruit Larry Franklin as our spy. The only problem is that we didn’t recruit him as our spy. Our so-called friends in Washington did. And guess who gets blamed?”

That the constant public celebration of Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East” and America’s “greatest ally in the fight against terrorism” might actually be bad for Israel might be puzzling for some - but it’s not all that much of a surprise for a large number of Washington officials. “The very fact that AIPAC is now forced to issue press statements pleading patriotism is a sign of the kind of pressure they are under,” a veteran Washington lobbyist says. “They can yell and scream about their loyalty all they want, but when they pass information on to the Israeli government they put themselves in great danger.” At issue for AIPAC - and other outspoken friends of Israel - is whether the Franklin investigation will actually threaten Israel’s standing in the White House. In large part, intelligence officials say, that question can only be answered by FBI investigators.

“I don’t doubt for one minute that the US and Israel share important information,” a retired former senior CIA officer says. “The President of the United States cannot be arrested for espionage. He is the lead executive officer of the government - if he wants to call Ariel Sharon and tell him what our real policy is he can do it. It happens all the time. But no one elected Larry Franklin, or Doug Feith. And to say that the exchange of classified information occurs every day at every level of our government is just wrong. It doesn’t happen, and it’s not right if it does. And sometimes the sharing of information is treasonous - it’s espionage. It just depends on what the information is.” In other words, while Franklin might not face espionage charges for passing an Israeli official a draft White House policy paper, he could be accused of being an Israeli spy if he passed on information of a more sensitive nature. There is absolutely no reason to suspect that Franklin (or Doug Feith, for that matter) did any such thing. But CIA and FBI officials have been telling reporters that they are now convinced someone did - and they have evidence to prove it.

According to published reports, the FBI is now investigating whether Pentagon officials are involved in any way in Ahmad Chalabi’s alleged leak of signals intelligence information to Iran. Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) was a Pentagon favorite - and lobbied heavily, and successfully, for the US invasion of Iraq. It was largely on the basis of Chalabi’s supposed network of Iraqi spies that Pentagon neo-conservatives argued that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction. According to reports published last week, Chalabi somehow determined that the US National Security Agency had deciphered (or “cracked”) Iran’s diplomatic codes - and he passed that information on to Iran. The information included, according to the Washington Post, “extremely sensitive information about recent US intercepts of official communications within the Iranian government. The intelligence allegedly shared by Chalabi’s group with Tehran also included information on how the United States had deciphered encrypted Iranian messages.”

In the intelligence business ciphers and codes are called “the family jewels” - they are not simply secrets, they are the secrets. They are a key, perhaps the key, means by which a nation protects its citizens. “We’re not talking about a couple of mathematicians sitting around a room trying to figure out how to decipher intercepted communications,” a former intelligence officer says. “There is some of that, yes. But the sophistication of codes has gone way past the point where you have smart people doing smart things. What it takes now is hiring someone or finding someone in a foreign government that has access to a cipher pad and who is willing to smuggle it out. Planning such operations takes years. They are very dangerous operations. People risk their lives doing this. Some of them die. Let me be real blunt: we would have lost the last war [World War II] if we had not had this kind of information.”

The implication of the Franklin case is that someone - but no one is saying exactly who - either told Ahmad Chalabi that the US had broken Iran’s codes or, more likely, passed him documents that proved the codes were broken. If that is the case (that is to say, if the newspaper reports on the burgeoning spy scandal are true) then someone in the US government passed on “the family jewels” to Ahmad Chalabi. If Ahmad Chalabi then passed that information on to Iran (and it seems almost certain that, if he received it, he did) then it is quite likely that Iran will have changed its codes - and that the US will no longer be able to determine whether Iran has weapons of mass destruction, is developing them, or is planning to use them on the United States. And if that is the case (and FBI investigators and CIA officers are increasingly convinced that it is the case), then George Bush cannot call his friend Ariel Sharon and tell him whether Israel is in danger. Now regardless of whether or not you think Iran is a threat to Israel is quite beside the point: no information can be far more devastating to a nation’s security than the worst information. And US officials know that Israeli officials will not live with such uncertainty - lacking information about Iran’s capabilities they will attack.

And it is this uncertainty, this lack of knowledge, that so angers senior Israel intelligence officers about their friends, the neo-conservatives. “We have all of these friends in Washington who think they know what is better for Israel than we do,” this senior Israeli intelligence officer says. “Well, let me tell you something. If it turns out that one of our friends, in the name of being our friend, leaked information to Ahmad Chalabi that includes signal intelligence information, he will have put us in very grave danger. And that person should be arrested and put on trial and sent to jail. In any other country, there wouldn’t even be a trial. But you know what? If that person is a real friend of Israel, well then we’ll be put on trial too, and that will be a damned tragedy.” In other words, very senior Israeli intelligence officials are starting to come to the conclusion that with friends like the Pentagon’s neo-conservatives, who needs enemies?

This article was originally published on September 8, 2004, by Palestine Report, found at www.palestinereport.org. Also in this week’s edition: PR interviews Hebron governor Areef Jabari and reports on the first day of voter registration in Gaza City.