The circumstances surrounding the arrest of Pentagon analyst Lawrence A. Franklin for passing classified information to two employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) would make a good thriller. Acted out against a backdrop of war and terrorism, it’s a cloak-and-dagger tale swathed in mystery, pregnant with political implications, and hinting at a subtext of hostility beneath the “special relationship” binding the U.S. to Israel. It has all the elements of good fiction—a strong plot, a fascinating set of characters, and a theme that will have the audience buzzing long after they leave the theater. Better yet, it looks like the dramatic climax will come in the form of a courtroom drama in a legal battle pitting the watchdogs of America’s vital secrets against a shadowy fifth column.

For years the FBI’s counterintelligence unit has been tracking a major espionage cell operating on behalf of Israel. Franklin stumbled into it one summer day in 2003, when he showed up at Tivoli restaurant outside Washington and met with two AIPAC officials—Steve Rosen, AIPAC’s longtime foreign-policy director, and Keith Weissman, AIPAC’s top Iran specialist. Franklin, described by his colleagues as a naïve ideologue who, as Ha’aretz put it, “believes wholeheartedly in the neo-conservative approach,” revealed classified information about possible Iranian-sponsored attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. Franklin was apparently worried that U.S. policymakers were insufficiently alarmed over the alleged Iranian threat to our interests in Iraq and was looking to enlist AIPAC—and the Israeli government—in pressuring policymakers to take a harder line on Tehran.

What he didn’t know, as he spilled U.S. secrets, was that the FBI was recording his every word. It would be a while before he found out. Until then, he was watched, his phone conversations were recorded, and agents observed him trying to pass classified documents to an individual already under surveillance. However, as Newsweek described it, the unidentified Israeli spy was “too smart” for that, and insisted Franklin relate the information verbally.

An analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency, Franklin served in the Air Force Reserve and did several tours of duty attached to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv. As Iran desk officer with the Defense Undersecretary for Policy, Near East South Asia, Franklin later moved to Douglas Feith’s Office of Special Plans (OSP), where he and his fellow neocons cooked the intelligence on Iraq according to Ahmad Chalabi’s special recipe and then served it up piping hot to Dick Cheney’s boys, who delivered it straight to the White House. As Seymour Hersh relates, they called themselves “the Cabal”—a bit of self-mockery that, in retrospect, seems all too descriptive. OSP functioned, in effect, as a parallel intelligence agency. Its mission was to bypass the CIA, the DIA, and the mainline intelligence community and give the War Party the answers they wanted. The cabalists did not limit their activities to writing up talking points, however, but also engaged in field operations that caught the attention of the State Department and the CIA.

In December 2001, Franklin, along with Harold Rhode, a Middle East expert and Franklin’s colleague in Feith’s policy shop, and neoconservative writer Michael Ledeen—at the time working for Feith as a consultant—met with the infamous Manucher Ghorbanifar, of Iran-Contra fame, and a group of Iranians, including a former high official of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Also in attendance: Nicolo Pollari, head of the Italian intelligence service, and Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino. As writer Laura Rozen tells it, “Ghorbanifar told me he has had fifty meetings with Michael Ledeen since September 11th, and that he has given Ledeen ‘4,000 to 5,000 pages of sensitive documents’ concerning Iran, Iraq and the Middle East, ‘material no one else has received.’”

In trying to discover how Iran had gotten its hands on vital U.S. secrets, including information on how the U.S. was eavesdropping on the Iranian government’s encrypted internal communications, the FBI must surely have taken some interest in these activities. Their chief suspect, after all, was Chalabi, whose Iraqi National Congress supplied much of the grist for the OSP’s mill.

A raid on Chalabi’s Baghdad headquarters brought the whole affair into the open, and the Chalabi investigation has reared its head again in the Franklin affair. The Washington Post reports that the initial stage of the inquiry into Chalabi’s activities as a double agent “focused on the activities of a US military reservist who was serving at the US Embassy in Israel.”

When the FBI confronted Franklin and searched his home and office—turning up 83 classified documents, spanning three decades—he agreed, at first, to help the investigation, presumably in return for a promise of leniency. By some accounts, notably those by pro-AIPAC writer Edwin Black, Franklin agreed to make a series of monitored phone calls to suspects in the investigation, including neoconservative supporters of Chalabi. They also supposedly planted information via Franklin that Israeli agents operating in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq were in danger of assassination by Iranian agents. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that Franklin met with Weissman on July 21, 2004 outside Nordstrom’s at the Pentagon City mall in Arlington and warned him about Israel’s Kurdish problem. Alarmed, Weissman and Rosen passed this on to AIPAC, which raised the matter in meetings with NSC official Eliot Abrams. They also called Naor Gilon, top political officer at the Israeli embassy. This was followed shortly afterward by the FBI’s first raid on AIPAC’s Washington headquarters. (They would return four months later.)

Whoever leaked details of the case to CBS News, including Franklin’s identity, nixed the FBI’s efforts to trace the transfer of sensitive materials from the spy nest embedded in our government to Israeli officials. FBI officials were furious: the leaker had effectively sabotaged their investigation, at least for the moment. Franklin stopped co-operating with the authorities, dismissed his court-appointed lawyer, and hired the high-priced law firm of Plato Cacheris.

The recent kickstarting of the prosecution, however, has seen a sea change in AIPAC’s defense strategy. Rosen and Weissman have been handed their walking papers, and AIPAC is backpedaling furiously on its previous statements denying any wrongdoing by its employees, although the group is still paying the duo’s legal bills. JTA reports indicate they are both to be indicted shortly, and Rosen anticipates the trial may begin as early as January 2006. He has pledged to fight the charges.

When this case comes to trial, it won’t be only three spies for Israel who stand accused: the whole nexus of organizations and interests that came together in the War Party will be put in the dock.

When Franklin walked in unexpectedly on that luncheon meeting, he stumbled onto one of the biggest, most far-reaching espionage investigations since the Cold War. The crime committed in this case involves not only the theft of vital U.S. secrets but a concerted effort to influence American foreign policy on behalf of a foreign power. This is indicated, for one example, by the FBI’s recent interrogation of Uzi Arad, formerly director of research for the Mossad and now head of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Israel’s Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. According to The Forward, the FBI wanted to know why he had sent Franklin a research paper by Eran Lerman on how to re-invigorate America’s relationship with Israel. Lerman, a former IDF intelligence officer, is the executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s office in Israel. They also asked Arad about two conversations he had with Franklin: one at the December 2004 Herzliya Conference, which Franklin attended, and the other in the Pentagon cafeteria.

The Lerman paper argues that the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” has fallen into “maintenance mode” in recent times and that America’s grand democratization project in the Middle East calls for what Lerman dubs “the Special Relations Initiative of 2005.” Whether this more assertive policy includes such activities as spying is a matter for conjecture, but the FBI’s interest in a top AJC official shows that the scandal is widening.

It is also embracing more than lobbying groups like AIPAC and the AJC. The affidavit supporting Franklin’s arrest noted that Franklin may have disclosed classified information to reporters, and the New York Times reports that federal agents have begun questioning journalists who may have written articles based on Franklin’s revelations—the Times puts the number so far at four, “among them at least one newspaper journalist and others whose work has been published on the Internet.” The JTA has named the newspaper reporter: Glenn Kessler, the State Department correspondent for the Washington Post.

The FBI is said to have taped a July 21, 2004 conversation that Weissman and Rosen had with Kessler. According to the JTA report, they joked about “not getting in trouble” over the exchange of information. “At least we have no Official Secrets Act,” said Rosen, referring to laws on the books in Britain and elsewhere prohibiting receipt of classified information. The joke, however, is on them. If the prosecution proves that they knew they were passing on classified information, including to an official of a foreign nation, they could wind up in the next cell over from Jonathan Pollard.

AIPAC’s defenders lamely claim “mishandling” classified information is not the same as espionage. Franklin is charged with violating Title 18, Section 793(d) of the Espionage Act, which makes it a crime to pass to unauthorized persons “information the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.” But Rosen and Weissman, who handed over classified information to Gilon, could face charges under Section 794, which carries a punishment of either death or life imprisonment for the crime of communicating information relating to the national defense “to any foreign government.” According to a report in the New York Sun, the charges are so classified that AIPAC lawyer, Nathan Lewis, was required to get a security clearance to hear them.

The mystery at the heart of this investigation is how and when it began. Warren Strobel of Knight Ridder reported in 2004 that the probe “has been going on for more than two years,” and UPI’s Richard Sale cites a “former senior U.S. government official” as saying, “In 2001, the FBI discovered new, ‘massive’ Israeli spying operations in the East Coast, including New York and New Jersey,” and they began watching Gilon, who eventually led them to Franklin. The JTA dates the genesis of the inquiry more precisely: “information garnered during the investigation into alleged leaks from a Pentagon analyst to the two former AIPAC staffers suggests the FBI began probing AIPAC officials just before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.”

Like a dorsal fin poking just above the water, the Franklin spy trial promises us a glimpse of a creature much larger than appears at first sight. Whether the trial will draw it up to the surface remains to be seen. In any case, the magnitude of the problem posed by the covert activities of our ally—heretofore ignored or covered up—is all too clear.

Justin Raimondo is editorial director of Antiwar.com.