September 2, 2004
Pentagon Office in Spying Case Was Focus of Iran Debate
By ERIC SCHMITT
WASHINGTON, Sept. 1 - The Pentagon's policy office, where a lower-level analyst is under suspicion of passing secrets to Israel, was deeply involved in deliberations over how the United States should deal with Iran, its conservative Islamic government and its nuclear weapons ambitions - all issues of intense concern to Israel as well.
The analyst, Lawrence A. Franklin, a Farsi-speaking specialist on Iran in the office, participated in a secret outreach meeting with an Iranian opposition figure, had access to classified intelligence about Iran's nuclear program and was one of many officials involved in drafting a top-secret presidential order on Iran.
The authorities say that Mr. Franklin, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, passed to lobbyists from a pro-Israel group a draft of the presidential order, known as a National Security Presidential Directive. But President Bush has not yet approved a final version because many of the policy questions themselves remain under intense debate.
"We have an ad hoc policy that we're making up as we go along," said a government official involved in the internal debate. "It is to squeeze Iran, using international pressure, to get them to rid themselves of their nuclear program."
The shifting, unresolved nature of the administration's policy toward Iran may have led Israel or the lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which seeks to influence United States policy, to seek a window into the administration's decision-making process, even if it was through a relatively low-level analyst like Mr. Franklin, Pentagon officials said.
A lawyer for the committee said Tuesday that Steven Rosen, the group's director of foreign policy issues, and Kenneth Weissman, an expert on Iran, were interviewed last week by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. No charges have been brought and no arrests have been made in the case.
Israeli officials were intently interested in both Washington's policy debates and in the intelligence about the progress Iran is making in its nuclear program, a former Bush administration official said. Israeli officials have made it clear, a former senior American diplomat said recently, that if Iran passes some undefined "red lines" in its nuclear program, Israel will consider attacking the sites, much as it attacked Iraq's main nuclear plant 23 years ago.
"What the Israelis really want," the former diplomat said, "is as much detail as they can get about how close the Iranians are getting."
The Defense Department's policy office is a miniature State Department contained within the Pentagon bureaucracy. It is headed by an under secretary of defense, Douglas J. Feith, and employs more than 1,500 policy makers, analysts and other specialists, including Mr. Franklin. Its work centers primarily on regional strategic planning like deliberations on what positions the government should take in dealing with other countries. In doing so, it works closely with the State Department and National Security Council.
For more than a year, a major debate over Iran policy has divided the administration. Hard-liners at the Pentagon, including some in the policy office, and, to some extent, in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, have advocated a policy of threatening confrontation with the government in Tehran, and supporting opposition groups and student demonstrations, government officials said.
"We know that there is widespread unhappiness in the country about the failures of the clerical regime," Mr. Feith said of Iran at a Pentagon news conference on June 4, 2003. "The president has expressed his sympathy with the aspirations of the Iranians to have a free country."
One former senior official in the administration said that a small group of officials, especially in the Defense Department, had talked periodically about pursuing a policy of "regime change" in Iran, but that the debate had proved sterile. "How do you do it?" the former official asked. "There's no military option. The reformers want the bomb as much as the mullahs want it. You have no choice but to engage."
Last May, one proposal advocated by some lower-level Pentagon officials advocated covert support for Iranian resistance groups to destabilize Iran's powerful clergy. Some officials even raised the prospect of air strikes against an Iranian nuclear site at Natanz if Iran's nuclear program proceeded.
A government official involved in the debate said Monday, however, that he was not aware that any official in the Pentagon policy office had ever raised the possibility of using air strikes or backing resistance movements, even as a last resort.
A competing position, which has prevailed as administration policy, has sought to support the elected government of President Mohammad Khatami in its battle with hard-line clerics. This policy has favored using diplomatic pressure on Tehran to end its nuclear program.
What puzzles some associates of Mr. Franklin is that despite his broad contacts with Iranian dissidents, he was not among the department's staunchest hard-liners on Iran. But in an op-ed article published in The Wall Street Journal Europe in February 2000, Mr. Franklin argued: "No amount of clerical spin-doctoring can alter the reality that Iran's government remains its citizens' public enemy No. 1, one that neither trusts its own people, nor is trusted by them. Why should we?"
The policy office under Mr. Feith has been embroiled in a series of controversial issues over the past three years. Before the Iraq war, Mr. Feith established a small intelligence unit that sought to build a case for Iraq's ties to Al Qaeda, an effort disputed by the Central Intelligence Agency.
In a debate last year involving the fate of an Iranian opposition group that is based in Iraq, Mr. Feith's office has been described by some Bush administration officials as playing an instrumental role in calling for reconsideration of American policy toward the organization.
The group, the Mujahedeen Khalq, maintained heavily armed camps in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, but has been listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization since the late 1990's. In the Iraq war last year, American aircraft bombed the group's camps.
Ultimately, the group signed a cease-fire agreement with American military forces in which its members were disarmed. State Department officials said in May 2003 that the question of whether to disarm the Mujahedeen Khalq had been the subject of sharp debate among Pentagon officials. Some administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have gone further, saying that civilians at the Pentagon within Mr. Feith's office had suggested dropping the terrorist designation from the group, and using its members as a lever to maintain pressure on Iraq. But Mr. Feith has called that characterization incorrect.
The meetings were brokered by Michael Ledeen, a conservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who had played a role in the Iran-contra affair in the Reagan administration. Along with Mr. Ledeen, Mr. Franklin and Mr. Rhode met with Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian who was an arms deal middleman in the Iran-contra affair.
Beginning in 2001, the meetings were intended to put the administration in closer contact with Iranian dissidents who claimed to have valuable information about Iran, Iraq and terrorist activity in Afghanistan. The dissidents also said they could help track down Mr. Hussein's fortune hidden in international banks.
Although top Pentagon officials approved the first meeting, Mr. Ghorbanifar's involvement subsequently raised concern within the administration because it evoked memories of Iran-contra and questions about whether the Pentagon was engaging in rogue covert operations. In the 1980's, Mr. Ghorbanifar was labeled a "fabricator" by the C.I.A.
Reporting was contributed by Douglas Jehl, James Risen, David E. Sanger and Steven R. Weisman.