A few blocks off Pennsylvania Avenue, the FBI's eight-story Washington field office exudes all the charm of a maximum-security prison. Its curved roof is made of thick stainless steel, the bottom three floors are wrapped in granite and limestone, hydraulic bollards protect the ramp to the four-floor garage, and bulletproof security booths guard the entrance to the narrow lobby. On the fourth floor, like a tomb within a tomb, lies the most secret room in the $100 million concrete fortress—out-of-bounds even for special agents without an escort. Here, in the Language Services Section, hundreds of linguists in padded earphones sit elbow-to-elbow in long rows, tapping computer keyboards as they eavesdrop on the phone lines of foreign embassies and other high-priority targets in the nation's capital.
At the far end of that room, on the morning of February 12th, 2003, a small group of eavesdroppers were listening intently for evidence of a treacherous crime. At the very moment that American forces were massing for an invasion of Iraq, there were indications that a rogue group of senior Pentagon officials were already conspiring to push the United States into another war—this time with Iran.
A few miles away, FBI agents watched as Larry Franklin, an Iran expert and career employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency, drove up to the Ritz-Carlton hotel across the Potomac from Washington. A trim man of fifty-six, with a tangle of blond hair speckled gray, Franklin had left his modest home in Kearneysville, West Virginia, shortly before dawn that morning to make the eighty-mile commute to his job at the Pentagon. Since 2002, he had been working in the Office of Special Plans, a crowded warren of blue cubicles on the building's fifth floor. A secretive unit responsible for long-term planning and propaganda for the invasion of Iraq, the office's staffers referred to themselves as "the cabal." They reported to Douglas Feith, the third-most-powerful official in the Defense Department, helping to concoct the fraudulent intelligence reports that were driving America to war in Iraq.
Just two weeks before, in his State of the Union address, President Bush had begun laying the groundwork for the invasion, falsely claiming that Saddam Hussein had the means to produce tens of thousands of biological and chemical weapons, including anthrax, botulinum toxin, sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent. But an attack on Iraq would require something that alarmed Franklin and other neoconservatives almost as much as weapons of mass destruction: detente with Iran. As political columnist David Broder reported in The Washington Post, moderates in the Bush administration were "covertly negotiating for Iran to stay quiet and offer help to refugees when we go into Iraq."
Franklin—a devout neoconservative who had been brought into Feith's office because of his political beliefs—was hoping to undermine those talks. As FBI agents looked on, Franklin entered the restaurant at the Ritz and joined two other Americans who were also looking for ways to push the U.S. into a war with Iran. One was Steven Rosen, one of the most influential lobbyists in Washington. Sixty years old and nearly bald, with dark eyebrows and a seemingly permanent frown, Rosen was director of foreign-policy issues at Israel's powerful lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Seated next to Rosen was AIPAC's Iran expert, Keith Weissman. He and Rosen had been working together closely for a decade to pressure U.S. officials and members of Congress to turn up the heat on Tehran.
Over breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton, Franklin told the two lobbyists about a draft of a top-secret National Security Presidential Directive that dealt with U.S. policy on Iran. Crafted by Michael Rubin, the desk officer for Iraq and Iran in Feith's office, the document called, in essence, for regime change in Iran. In the Pentagon's view, according to one senior official there at the time, Iran was nothing but "a house of cards ready to be pushed over the precipice." So far, though, the White House had rejected the Pentagon's plan, favoring the State Department's more moderate position of diplomacy. Now, unwilling to play by the rules any longer, Franklin was taking the extraordinary—and illegal—step of passing on highly classified information to lobbyists for a foreign state. Unable to win the internal battle over Iran being waged within the administration, a member of Feith's secret unit in the Pentagon was effectively resorting to treason, recruiting AIPAC to use its enormous influence to pressure the president into adopting the draft directive and wage war against Iran.
It was a role that AIPAC was eager to play. Rosen, recognizing that Franklin could serve as a useful spy, immediately began plotting ways to plant him in the White House—specifically in the National Security Council, the epicenter of intelligence and national-security policy. By working there, Rosen told Franklin a few days later, he would be "by the elbow of the president."
Knowing that such a maneuver was well within AIPAC's capabilities, Franklin asked Rosen to "put in a good word" for him. Rosen agreed. "I'll do what I can," he said, adding that the breakfast meeting had been a real "eye-opener."
Working together, the two men hoped to sell the United States on yet another bloody war. A few miles away, digital recorders at the FBI's Language Services Section captured every word.