WASHINGTON — High-ranking officials at the Pentagon and State Department have been interviewed or briefed by FBI agents investigating a Defense Department analyst suspected of passing to Israel classified Bush administration materials on Iran.
Among those briefed by the FBI was Douglas Feith, the Pentagon undersecretary for policy who is a superior of the analyst under investigation, said government officials familiar with the sessions. The officials spoke Monday on condition of anonymity because the probe is ongoing.
The FBI agents briefed Feith on Sunday in his office at the Pentagon and also asked questions, the officials said. Also recently briefed by the FBI was Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, they said.
Others at State and Defense have been interviewed or briefed over the course of the probe, but the officials declined to provide any other names.
There was no immediate indication that the criminal investigation has widened beyond the single analyst, identified previously by senior law enforcement officials as Larry Franklin. Franklin, who has not responded to telephone messages seeking comment, works in an office dealing the Middle East affairs and has access to classified government information.
Analyst at center of investigation
The investigation focuses on whether Franklin passed classified U.S. material on Iran to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential Israeli lobbying organization in Washington, and whether anyone in that group forwarded the information on to Israeli officials. AIPAC and Israel have strenuously denied the allegations.
Israeli officials did confirm Monday that a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington has met with Franklin. Those officials, also speaking on condition of anonymity, identified the diplomat as Naor Gilon, head of the Israeli Embassy’s political department.
Gilon told the Israeli newspaper Maariv that he did nothing wrong but was concerned that he may no longer be able to work in Washington because of the investigation.
“Now, people will be scared to talk with me,” Gilon said in a story published Monday.
Prosecutors were still deciding whether to bring the most serious charge of espionage against Franklin or others, or opt for a lesser charge such as mishandling classified information. U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty of Virginia’s eastern district, who is overseeing the probe, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Israeli officials deny allegations
Israeli officials have denied allegations that Israel spied on the United States to get information about Iran, despite deep concerns about Tehran’s nuclear program.
The link to Feith’s office could prove politically sensitive for the Bush administration.
Feith is an influential aide to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who works on sensitive policy issues including U.S. policy toward Iraq and Iran. Feith’s office includes a cadre assigned specifically to work on Iran.
Feith, the No. 3 official in the Pentagon, also has close ties to Israel. He prepared an important policy paper for former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before Netanyahu’s election in 1996, and is a former law partner of Marc Zell, an Israeli-American attorney with business interests in Iraq.
He also oversaw the Pentagon’s defunct Office of Special Plans, which critics said fed policy-makers uncorroborated prewar intelligence on President Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, especially involving purported ties with the al-Qaida terrorist network. Pentagon officials have said the office was a small operation that provided fresh analysis on existing intelligence.
Memories of 1985 spy case revived
The allegations threaten to create tensions between Israel and its closest ally and have revived bitter memories of the 1985 arrest of U.S. Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence for passing secrets to Israel. The Pollard affair continues to cloud ties between the U.S. and Israeli intelligence communities.
Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Israeli parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said over the weekend that lessons from the Pollard affair have restrained Israel from spying against Washington for two decades.
“Following the Pollard crisis 20 years ago, there was a decision not to spy against the U.S. government or its subsidiaries, and I am confident that this is the case,” he said.
Steinitz said that despite Israel’s deep concern about Iran’s nuclear program it would not be tempted to break its ban on spying against the United States.
“Israel is very concerned ... that the ayatollahs will acquire nuclear weapons because this is an unpredictable regime with close network to terror organizations around the world,” he said. “But if you think this might change our previous decision to spy on the U.S., the answer is no.”
NBC News' Pete Williams and Robert Windrem and The Associated Press contributed to this report.