Analysis: Tentative relief for AIPAC despite Franklin case headlines

By David Horovitz May 6, 2005

The Israeli government Thursday issued a firm denial that it was recalling a Washington-based diplomat linked to Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin, who has been charged with illegally passing ‘top-secret’ US defense information to AIPAC officials. However the diplomat in question, Naor Gilon, is understood to be finishing his stint in Washington shortly.

Spokesmen in Jerusalem and Washington rejected an Israel TV report which asserted that the diplomat was being brought back to Jerusalem because of the Franklin-AIPAC case. Gilon, the minister-counselor for political affairs at the embassy in Washington, is known to have met with Franklin, a specialist in Iranian and Middle Eastern affairs, in the routine course of his duties.

‘I can say unequivocably that no one is being recalled in connection with that affair,’ said a ministry spokesman in Jerusalem.

‘There is no basis to this story,’ added an embassy spokesman in Washington.

Still, Washington sources confirmed that Gilon was about to finish his stint in the US capital after some three years.

Franklin turned himself in to the US authorities on Wednesday, and was released on $100,000 bond. His arrest has attracted major headlines – including one in theNew York Post on Thursday that referred to the ‘Israel Lobby’s ‘Spy’.’ But the hope inside AIPAC is that the single charge filed against Franklin – in which the word ‘espionage’ does not appear – indicates that an episode that had been threatening to embroil the powerful pro-Israel lobby, and by extension Israel itself, in a new spying scandal of Jonathan Pollard proportions, may ultimately prove less damaging.

In a little over two weeks, AIPAC holds its annual policy conference, a glittering affair traditionally graced by the most prominent of Washington’s political luminaries. Despite the uncomfortable press coverage in the wake of the Franklin arrest, all the scheduled heavy-hitters were still in place on the conference guest list as of Thursday night, with the Senate majority and minority leaders, the House majority and minority leaders and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice all still scheduled to address the thousands of expected participants.

AIPAC had deliberated long and hard in recent months about how to handle the developing story, which broke last summer in sensational fashion: CBS led its August 27 Nightly News with the claim of a ‘full-fledged espionage investigation under way,’ in which the FBI was about to ‘roll up’ a suspected Israeli ‘mole’ in the office of the secretary of defense in the Pentagon.

Then last December, The Jerusalem Post’s Janine Zacharia detailed the dimensions of the affair, describing how the FBI ‘set up AIPAC.’ It used Franklin, she reported, to draw two senior AIPAC officials – Steve Rosen, the director of research, and Keith Weissman, deputy director of foreign policy issues – who already knew him into a lunch meeting with him in July 2004 and into accepting what he described to them as classified information.

This information, which concerned Iranians purportedly monitoring and planning to kidnap and kill Israelis operating in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, was then passed on to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Zacharia reported.

In an affidavit accompanying the criminal complaint against Franklin on Wednesday, FBI agent Catherine Hanna did not refer to that 2004 lunch but, rather, to information conveyed at a lunch the previous June, and the alleged leaking there of classified information about possible attacks by Iranian-backed groups in Iraq on American, not Israeli, targets. The affidavit stated that Franklin’s disclosure ‘could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of a foreign country.’

As the investigation has continued, AIPAC has had its offices searched and files belonging to Rosen and Weissman confiscated, Rosen and Weissman have been questioned by the FBI, and four of AIPAC’s most senior staffers – executive director Howard Kohr, managing director Richard Fishman, communications director Renee Rothstein and research director Rafi Danziger – have testified before a closed grand jury.

Some in AIPAC have long urged that the lobby group make its officials available to the media in a concerted effort to demonstrate innocence, while others have counseled maximal discretion, arguing that the affair would play itself out without causing real damage.

The ‘keep quiet’ advocates have prevailed thus far. But the notion that AIPAC can afford to confidently believe that it is off the hook does not square with the fact that it dramatically parted ways with Rosen and Weissman, the longtime officials to whom Franklin allegedly passed his classified information.

The Post understands that AIPAC has made sure that the pair, both of whom have been bracing to be indicted themselves, are provided with expert legal assistance; indeed, it is said to be paying their legal fees. But by severing its working ties to Rosen and Weissman, AIPAC was plainly seeking to dissociate itself from what it must consider to be potential harm.

Nevertheless, the fact that Rosen and Weissman are not named in the affidavit, and the fact that it specifies that the exchange of information was ‘verbal’ – no documents are alleged to have changed hands – is said to be a source of relief, to the pair themselves and to AIPAC. The lobby group itself, too, escapes all mention in the affidavit. (Rosen’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, has issued a statement that his client ‘never solicited, received or passed on any classified documents from Larry Franklin, and Mr. Franklin will never be able to say otherwise.’)

There is no mention of Israel, either, in the affidavit, although Franklin is alleged in it to have ‘also knowingly disclosed classified US government information to a foreign official.’

Israeli official sources claimed on Thursday to have been told by American officials that this is not an allusion to Gilon or any other Israeli. Neither Gilon nor anyone else at the embassy, is said to have been questioned by the FBI over the affair.

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