Spy vs. Spy

Over the past few weeks, as the anniversary of Sept. 11 approached, the FBI and the Department of Justice, along with investigative reporters at CBS, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, have focused their resources on what they must figure is a real threat to American security: the folks at AIPAC.

"Israel Has Long Spied on U.S., Say Officials" screamed a front page Sept. 3 headline by Times’ writers Bob Drogin and Greg Miller.

The article played catch-up to a report on CBS that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobbying group, is the focus of an ongoing federal investigation. According to the news reports, an indictment was imminent against lower-level Pentagon analyst official Larry Franklin for passing confidential documents regarding America’s Iran policy to two AIPAC officials, who then funneled them to the Israelis.

In June the Pentagon revoked Franklin’s security clearances, and the FBI has been tracking two AIPAC Iran analysts, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman. I suppose that’s just in case they try to enroll in flight school.

What is going on here?

No one I’ve spoken with believes this purported investigation will uncover serious wrongdoing. That’s not to say no one may have crossed lines, lines that are often blurry to begin with. The office of Doug Feith, the undersecretary of Defense for Policy, is under at least two separate investigations that don’t concern Israel, as is the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, which was responsible for some of the dubious intelligence regarding pre-invasion Iraq. But as for the Franklin investigation, a Washington investigator told me, "We’re not even close to Jonathan Pollard territory here."

All along, the seriousness of the charges and the way they unfolded doesn’t square. If AIPAC were really the target of a two-year government investigation approved by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, wouldn’t it have been radioactive by now? Would Rice herself have spoken to the group several times last year, and maintain her commitments to speak to it again in the coming months? Would she have allowed her boss, President Bush, to speak to AIPAC’s annual meeting on May 10? And would members of both parties have swamped AIPAC events in New York and Washington?

Is this affair about some nefarious pro-Israel spy ring that reaches from the Century Plaza AIPAC banquets to the halls of Congress to the neocons at the Pentagon to the White House? Or are the accusations volleys in a turf war over administration policy in the Middle East, from Israel to Iraq to Iran? The administration’s weak and incoherent Iran policy has pitted the State Department and CIA against the Department of Defense, and leaking a spy story is one way to discredit the latter. There is plenty of fault to be found with administration neocons, but smearing them with insinuations of dual-loyalty hurts Israel and American Jewry as a whole.

In all this, the press has been a willing accomplice. The Sept. 3 Los Angeles Times article lacked only a photo of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to make it more sensational. The damning headline rested — if you read through the piece — on a few unnamed officials. Other than printing some pro-forma Israeli denials, the writers don’t bother to investigate the details of the accusations themselves. It’s Swift Boat Veterans for Truth-style journalism: print the accusations, let others sort out the truth. Meanwhile, the looney left and Buchanan right go off on an Internet posting binge of anti-Israel conspiracy theories.

The Los Angeles Times piece offers no context — zero — as to what kind of spying other allies engage in, or to what extent the United States does the same. It doesn’t detail the harm — if any — to America’s security that such a vast network may have caused. And, like any good spy information, it self-destructs toward the end: The unnamed former officials say, "The relationship with Israeli intelligence is as intimate as it gets," and "They probably get 98 percent of everything they want handed to them on a weekly basis." So Israel and AIPAC have an intensive, politically suicidal, ongoing spy network against Israel’s life-sustaining ally in order to snag that extra 2 percent?

Franklin has not been charged yet, but there are reports indictments are forthcoming. They are expected to be minor. But they will cast a major pall on the operations of an organization that has been critical to Israel’s well-being. I’ve often disagreed with AIPAC when it has appeared to act as a hand puppet in the lap of Israeli governments whose policies sometimes defied logic or decency. Even then I know it has sometimes served as a truth-telling intermediary to Israeli prime ministers who needed to face difficult facts.

In Los Angeles, home to a financially and politically active network of AIPAC supporters, no one is even thinking of jumping ship. That would change in a heartbeat if what looks like reporters getting spun turns out to be bona fide espionage.

"It would be a dealbreaker," said one AIPAC supporter, who preferred to go unnamed.

In the meantime, we can only hope the folks at State, the FBI and the press are working as hard to uncover our enemies as they are to discomfit our friends.