updated 9/3/2004 6:07:41 PM ET 2004-09-03T22:07:41

The FBI first briefed senior White House officials early in the Bush administration about an investigation into whether a major pro-Israel lobbying organization was providing U.S. intelligence information to Israel, officials said Friday.

President Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and her top deputy, Stephen Hadley, were informed of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee probe not long after Bush took office in 2001, according to two administration officials speaking on condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

The exact date of the first briefing about the long-running counterintelligence investigation was unclear but was probably at least two years ago, the officials said.

The timing suggests that investigators only recently began to focus on Larry Franklin, a Pentagon analyst specializing on Iran and Middle Eastern affairs in the office of policy undersecretary Douglas Feith. That part of the probe concerns whether Frankin passed a classified, draft White House directive to two AIPAC officials, who in turn allegedly provided it to the Israeli government.

No one yet charged
No one has been charged in the case, which is expected to go before a federal grand jury as early as next week in Alexandria, Va. Franklin has not responded to repeated requests for comment but was said by officials to be cooperating. Both AIPAC and Israel have denied any wrongdoing.

Another part of the investigation concerns whether Pentagon officials provided information to Ahmad Chalabi, once a leading Iraqi politician and prewar Defense Department favorite, The Washington Post reported in Friday’s editions. FBI and Justice Department officials said they could not confirm the account.

Disclosure of the broader investigation raises a series of new questions about the case, including whether other AIPAC or Pentagon officials are involved or whether it reaches into the Israeli government. One senior official at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Naor Gilon, has acknowledged meeting with Franklin but said he did nothing illegal.

PR campaign
AIPAC and its allies, meanwhile, have begun to mount a public relations campaign to limit the political damage. AIPAC, long considered one of the most influential lobbying groups in Washington, said in a statement issued Thursday that its members should contact members of Congress “to continue expressing your strong support” for the group and for U.S.-Israeli relations.

Larry Nussbaum, president of AIPAC’s chapter in Kansas City, Mo., said in a separate statement that the investigation amounts to “not only an attack on the organization itself, but on the Jewish community. AIPAC must prove that attacks such as this one will only make us grow stronger.”

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