Lawyer: Franklin Stumbled into Investigation of Aipac Officials

Lawrence Franklin, the Pentagon analyst at the center of the government’s espionage case against two former employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, “walked onstage” into an ongoing investigation of AIPAC officials, according to his attorney. Plato Cacheris, one of Washington’s best-known espionage lawyers, told JTA in a recent interview that he is representing Franklin for free because he feels his client was unfairly targeted.

“I felt for him,” Cacheris said. “I felt he was unfairly put upon.”

Franklin was indicted last month on charges that he conspired to reveal classified information to two AIPAC officials, former policy director Steve Rosen and former Iran analyst Keith Weissman, and an Israeli Embassy employee.

Franklin’s trial is set to start Sept. 6. The midlevel Iran analyst has plead not guilty.

“Franklin walked onstage; there already was an investigation going on not involving him,” Cacheris said.

Prosecutors and other government officials have refused to comment on the case.

The information that Franklin allegedly relayed to Rosen and Weissman centered on Iran’s activities in post-invasion Iraq.

Cacheris’ assertion that Franklin was an accidental target in the case reinforces the perception held by those close to the defense of Weissman and Rosen that the two former AIPAC employees were the FBI’s original targets.

Indeed, Franklin’s indictment cites as evidence apparently tapped phone conversations of Rosen even before he met Franklin, suggesting that the government stumbled across Franklin in the course of tracking Rosen.

Another source familiar with the government’s case against Rosen says an investigation was launched as early as September 2001 because the Bush administration wanted to quash what it believed was a promiscuous culture of leaking in Washington. Rosen was renowned for his access to inside information.

Cacheris would not speculate about the government’s rationale for the case. “There seems to me there is something driving it,” he said. “What it is, I don’t know yet.”

Five of the six charges in Franklin’s indictment focus on his relationship with Rosen and Weissman; the sixth involves his relationship with Naor Gilon, head of the political desk at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. According to the indictment, Franklin’s acquaintance with Gilon predates his meetings with Rosen and Weissman.

Cacheris said a relationship between Gilon and Franklin — two men with a professional interest in Iran — was hardly surprising. He characterized the indictment’s implication that Franklin sought something from Israel in exchange for information as “rather flimsy.”

The indictment mentions a store gift card Franklin received from Gilon and a letter of reference Gilon wrote on behalf of Franklin’s daughter, who was going to visit Israel.

Franklin sought Cacheris’ legal assistance late last year after the FBI said it would press charges against him, even though he had cooperated with the government’s investigation of Rosen and Weissman.

Asked why Franklin agreed to the FBI’s alleged request last June to participate in a sting operation involving Weissman and Rosen without even asking for a lawyer or any quid pro quo, Cacheris smiled.

“Larry’s a little bit guileless — maybe a lot guileless — and maybe a bit unsophisticated for a guy with a Ph.D. in Asian studies,” said Cacheris, a Southerner with an avuncular manner and a fondness for seersucker suits. “The questions that you would have asked, he didn’t ask.”

“If he had a lawyer up front, we wouldn’t be talking today,” Cacheris said.

In the alleged sting on July 21, 2004, Franklin called Weissman and insisted that they meet as soon as possible. When they met later that day at a shopping mall, Franklin told Weissman that Iranian agents planned to imminently kidnap, torture and kill Israeli and American agents in northern Iraq, according to sources.

Franklin reportedly asked Weissman to relay the information to Elliott Abrams, then the assistant national security adviser at the White House in charge of dealing with the Middle East. The presumption was that AIPAC would have better access to the White House than a mid-level Iran analyst at the Pentagon.

The reliability of the information has never been verified, but Cacheris insists Franklin was embroiled in a sting operation.

“He was given a script,” the attorney said.

Weissman relayed the information to Rosen, and together they told their boss, AIPAC’s executive director Howard Kohr, asking him to pass it on to Abrams, according to multiple sources. There is no evidence that Kohr shared the information with Abrams or anyone else or that he knew it was classified.

The government has assured AIPAC that neither it nor Kohr are targets in the investigation, AIPAC has said.

Cacheris said he does not know if the alleged sting was directed at anyone beyond Rosen or Weissman.

The two AIPAC staffers also relayed the information to Gilon at the Israeli Embassy and to Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post’s State Department correspondent, according to sources close to the defense.

Those two conversations are expected to be central to the case against Rosen and Weissman. Indictments against the two are expected to be handed down sometime this summer.

The government will argue that relaying classified information to a foreign agent is an act of espionage and that Rosen and Weissman made it clear in their conversation with Kessler that the information was classified, according to defense sources familiar with the government’s case.

Weissman and Rosen will say they did not know that the information was classified and that the government is distorting their conversation with Kessler, according to sources close to the former AIPAC officials.

In August 2004, about a month after the alleged sting, FBI agents raided the offices of Rosen and Weissman at AIPAC headquarters. In January, the government convened a grand jury in Virginia to consider the case.

Cacheris, famous for handling high-profile espionage cases — including those against the FBI’s Robert Hannsen and the CIA’s Aldrich Ames — doesn’t believe the government has a lot to go on.

The exchanges that Rosen, Weissman and Franklin allegedly had are “very common,” Cacheris said. “People in this city are talking every day about stuff they’re not allowed to talk about. It’s not inappropriate.”

AIPAC fired Weissman and Rosen in March, after months of defending their integrity, citing information that arose out of the FBI investigation.

Franklin also faces charges in West Virginia, his place of residence, where he is alleged to have violated a ban on removing classified documents from the Virginia-Maryland-D.C. region by taking some items home. Franklin was reprimanded in the late 1990s for the same reason but was allowed to keep his security clearance.

Cacheris said he wasn’t currently negotiating a deal for Franklin.

“We will not plead to an espionage count because we don’t think that is justified,” he said.

Cacheris did not rule out agreeing to a plea bargain on a lesser charge in the future.

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