WASHINGTON — Even as a lull in government leaks appears to be short-circuiting the media frenzy over the FBI’s investigation of the pro-Israel lobby, sources with access to the Justice Department say the probe is moving forward.
Sources told the Forward that a federal grand jury is expected to begin interviewing people in connection to the investigation, which is believed to center on a Pentagon official suspected of passing on classified documents on to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Investigators reportedly suspect that Aipac officials passed on the information to Israel.
Jewish activists say that so far they know of no one who has been subpoenaed to testify in front of the grand jury. But according to one source, “there is a lot of nonsubpoena-level talking” between investigators and people they think might know of suspected wrongdoing.
The investigation could end up weakening the country’s most influential pro-Israel lobbying group significantly and, in turn, cause damage to the American-Israeli relationship. Now, however, reporters with mainstream national news organizations say, it has become almost impossible to obtain any new information from law-enforcement sources on the investigation.
“They are as tight as a drum,” said one reporter, who has been following the story on a daily basis.
According to Washington insiders, the goal of the recent torrent of unnamed government leaks was to undermine neoconservative Pentagon analysts who backed the Iraq war, in particular the undersecretary of defense for policy, Douglas Feith, the third-highest ranking civilian in the Pentagon.
“It’s clear to me that people are trying to point all the signs to Feith’s shop,” said a reporter with a major daily newspaper, who has been covering the story.
The criticism of Feith, sources say, has little to do with his being Jewish or his advocating positions identified with Israel’s right-wing Likud party. It also has little to do with his role in shaping the administration’s policy on Iran, a policy that according to press reports was the subject of documents inappropriately transferred by Lawrence Franklin, the Pentagon specialist on Iran who is allegedly suspected of sharing secret documents with Israeli diplomats and with staffers at Aipac, to Israel or to Aipac.
Feith is the most obvious target for critics in the intelligence community and the State Department, as well as members of the Pentagon’s senior brass, over the formation and execution of American policy in post-war Iraq. He is perceived by many as personifying the administration’s alleged manipulation of prewar intelligence to create a compelling case for war. He is also perceived as being responsible for a series of mistakes in the ongoing effort to pacify Iraq after the military campaign to depose Saddam Hussein’s rule had ended.
Criticism of Feith and the policies he represents “is of course legitimate,” a Jewish activist in Washington said. “Our concern, though, is that this criticism, coupled with still-unsubstantiated allegations and innuendo of inappropriate conduct by one of his staffers, legitimizes conspiracy theories.”
Feith was the subject of two unflattering profiles in the mainstream media over the weekend. In an interview with National Public Radio, Feith said, addressing his policy on Iraq: “I don’t mean to claim that no mistakes were made. There were mistakes, but I think that some of the critics are unduly harsh and unrealistic.”
He refused to comment to NPR on FBI investigations focusing on members of his staff.
Meanwhile, in the face of a rising wave of criticism from lawmakers, Jewish organizations and neoconservative pundits, the leaks regarding the FBI probe have stopped.
The reasons for the lull are not clear, but journalists and Jewish communal officials were floating several theories this week, including the notion that the sudden silence came in response to the condemnations from Jewish organizations and Capitol Hill.
“I sure hope that this is the case and that there was a directive” issued to stop leaking, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Last week Foxman sent a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller and to Attorney General John Ashcroft asking that they investigate who leaked the information and why.
“Maybe the clamp is on because [the leakers] made [law-enforcement agencies] look bad in the whole process,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“It may be that this has run its course,” Hoenlein said, sounding a bit skeptical as he struggled to strike an optimistic chord. “People have used it as an opportunity to make a little trouble, and now that’s over.” Foxman was quick to reject any talk of a fading controversy, saying: “I think we have a long ways to go” before the affair is over.
Other officials with major Jewish organizations seemed to agree.
“We don’t know anything. Nobody is telling us anything,” said a veteran Jewish activist in Washington. “Someone seems to have put the kibosh on [the leaks], but we don’t see anything to indicate that this is the end of the story. It will cause more embarrassment as it unfolds.”
The only new tidbit of information on the investigation to emerge this week came from an interview in Time magazine with an unidentified ex- member of the Iraqi National Congress, the group headed by Ahmed Chalabi. The former INC member told Time that Franklin asked him several probing questions. The man said that Franklin questioned him only about possible leaks of secret American information to the INC.
The Time report seemed to confirm earlier accounts that Franklin is in fact cooperating with the FBI, and is trying to help investigators with another suspected espionage scandal in the Pentagon.
Law enforcement agencies reportedly suspect that a Pentagon official told Chalabi or one of his INC colleagues that the United States had obtained secret Iranian communications codes. Chalabi is allegedly suspected of disclosing that intelligence clue to the Iranian government.