Pentagon Employee Accused of Sharing Documents

Defense Department analyst Lawrence Franklin says he will plead not guilty to charges of passing classified information about threats to U.S. forces in Iraq to employees of a pro-Israel group.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

A Defense Department analyst says he will plead not guilty to criminal charges that he leaked classified information. Middle East expert Larry Franklin turned himself in to the FBI today. He appeared in federal court in Virginia. He's accused of sharing sensitive information about threats to US troops in Iraq with two members of a pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington. Joining us is NPR's Larry Abramson.

And, Larry, first of all, who is Larry Franklin?

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

He's a colonel is the Air Force Reserves and a career analyst with the Defense Department, who served in the Pentagon's policy division as an expert specifically on Iran. He worked for Undersecretary Douglas Feith, who's one of the neoconservative hard-liners who's been pushing for a tougher stance toward Iran. And a while back the Pentagon confirmed that Larry Franklin met in 2001 with Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian arms dealer. And you may recall that name from the Iran Contra scandal, where he was a big figure. The goal of that meeting may have been to back Iranian dissident groups in Iran.

BLOCK: And what's he accused of doing in this case?

ABRAMSON: Well, this case involves charges in an FBI affidavit that was unsealed today. Franklin is accused of meeting with two men, who are not named, but we know them to be two former officials with AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a very powerful lobbying group here in Washington. And over that lunch, in a restaurant outside of Washington, he verbally shared top-secret information with them. The information had something to do with threats to US forces in Iraq. It isn't spelled out exactly.

Press reports have said that the threats may have had to do with Iranian-backed groups in Iraq that want to attack US forces and that some of that information was later passed on to Israel. But none of that is mentioned in the complaint against Larry Franklin. It just says that it was information about threats to US forces.

In addition, the FBI says that Franklin shared classified information with a reporter. And FBI agents also said they found 83 other classified documents at his home in West Virginia. Many of those were top secret. He had no permission to store those documents at home or to share the information with all those people I mentioned. And that's why he's facing a criminal charge today.

BLOCK: Larry, what would the goal of this alleged disclosure have been? Was it to benefit Israel in some way?

ABRAMSON: Well, there's been a lot of speculation about that, and the indictment doesn't really spell that out. But the reports about this information before the indictment said that it may have been destined to Israel, so that Israel would get an upper hand in its efforts to push a harder line by the US against Iran because Israel is very concerned about Iran's nuclear programs. The indictment only says, however, that aside from sharing the information with the two AIPAC officials, that he disclosed information to an unnamed foreign official. So we don't know whether the Israeli Embassy is involved in any way. The Israeli Embassy has denied any sort of involvement in any of this. And, in fact, it says it hasn't spied on the US since the arrest and conviction of Jonathan Pollard in the mid-'80s.

The FBI actually tried to get more information about the scope of this effort. They used Larry Franklin as kind of their own spy to try to find out who else might be involved in leaking information. But that cooperation apparently didn't go very well because it resulted in the charges against Larry Franklin, who hasn't really been offered a plea even at this point.

BLOCK: And what has happened to the two employees for AIPAC who allegedly got the information from Larry Franklin?

ABRAMSON: Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman were fired from the organization a couple of weeks ago after AIPAC defended them for months. But attorneys for the men say that they did nothing wrong, and AIPAC has denied any wrongdoing. And as I mentioned, the embassy of Israel says it hasn't done anything wrong in all of this.

BLOCK: And what's next for Larry Franklin?

ABRAMSON: He's been released on a $100,000 bond until his next appearance in court later this month. If he's convicted, he could face 10 years in prison.

BLOCK: Thanks very much.

ABRAMSON: Thank you.

BLOCK: NPR's Larry Abramson.

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