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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Next Wednesday in a federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, Larry Franklin is expected to plead guilty to leaking top-secret information, in his case, to powerful pro-Israel lobbyists. That's a new twist in the saga. Larry Franklin is a Pentagon analyst who was first charged in May. And he has pleaded not guilty up until now. The shift in strategy means Franklin is likely to become the government's star witness and that he will testify against the two remaining defendants in the case. NPR's intelligence correspondent Mary Louise Kelly has been following the story and she joins us now.

So, Mary Louise, first, what's behind this latest twist? Why is Franklin changing his plea now?

MARY LOUISE KELLY (NPR Intelligence Correspondent): Because apparently he thinks government prosecutors are ready to offer him a better deal. He's basically striking a plea bargain here, the exact terms of which are still unclear and, in fact, are apparently still being negotiated. Franklin's lawyer, Plato Cacheris, told me last night that he's still trying to hammer out the best deal for his client, but he confirmed he does expect Franklin will resume cooperating with the government. You may remember Franklin was cooperating with FBI investigators last year and then he stopped. And Franklin's lawyer confirms that Franklin will be testifying against the other two men who have been charged in this case.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's follow up on the other two men in a minute. But first, just--it is complicated. Give us a little...

KELLY: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...history here. The central allegation against Larry Franklin is that, with his Pentagon security clearance, he had access to classified material and that he illegally passed it on. That's right.

KELLY: That's right. That's right. The charges against Franklin are not--they're not espionage. They start--stop just short of that, but he does face five counts of conspiring to pass on classified information and mishandling government secrets. Now if he'd gone to trial in January, and that was the plan--he was scheduled to go to trial with the other two defendants in January, he could have faced 45 years in prison. He probably will still face some prison time even if this plea bargain goes ahead, but one presumes it'll be a far lighter sentence.

As to the substance of what he's accused of doing, a lot of the details of this are still classified. We do know that this is part of a long-running broad investigation into whether classified US intelligence was given to the Israeli government. The US government has said the information in question related to planned attacks on US forces in Iraq and that there was also intelligence on Iran involved.

MONTAGNE: Now back to the two other defendants, who are they and what about their pleas?

KELLY: Well, here the plot thickens. The two other men are named Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman. They are both former officials with AIPAC; AIPAC being the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. And I say former because they were both fired by AIPAC this past spring as more details about this case emerged. Rosen and Weissman face slightly different charges, but the gist of it for both of them is that they repeatedly sought top-secret information and then passed it on to journalists and to foreign embassy officials. They have both pleaded not guilty. They did so last month and I'm told they are not planning to change their pleas. Weissman's lawyer, in fact, told me that next month, they're planning to file a motion to dismiss, basically ask the judge to throw out the whole case. So they're proceeding in that direction. If that fails, they'll go to trial and they will argue their innocence.

MONTAGNE: And the key witness disputing those arguments of innocence may now turn out to be Larry Franklin, their old friend.

KELLY: Yeah. And that's part of what makes this whole latest twist of Franklin apparently deciding to plead guilty so interesting, because these three guys were friends. They were all expected to face trial together as co-defendants this coming January. Now Franklin will be testifying against the other two. It's really a fascinating turn of events for Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, who are both very powerful men in Washington. Rosen, in particular, was with AIPAC more than 20 years, really helped shape it into one of the most powerful lobby groups in the country. And this is a man who has enjoyed close ties for a long time with senior officials in this administration and with prior ones.

MONTAGNE: Mary Louise, thank you.

KELLY: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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