The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has begun questioning reporters who had contact with Pentagon official Lawrence Franklin, who has been charged with disclosing classified information to officials of the AIPAC pro-Israeli lobby in the United States, The New York Times reported Saturday.

Sources close to the investigation told the paper that four reporters have been questioned so far – at least one print journalist and others who have been published on Internet sites.

The affidavit that accompanied the complaint filed against Franklin in a federal court in Virginia mentions charges of conveying classified information to members of the media, but does not detail those accusations. Investigators want to determine whether the reporters in question did indeed received classified information from Franklin when he served as a data analyst at the Pentagon’s Middle East desk.

It is not illegal for a reporter to receive classified information, but conveying such information is a crime in the U.S., one that Franklin allegedly committed.

The four reporters were asked to submit voluntarily to interviews by FBI investigators, without having to be subpoenaed. Should they refuse, the federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia that has been convened to investigate the case has the authority to subpoena them.

Franklin’s trial is scheduled to open on May 27. He is charged with one count of disclosing classified defense information to unauthorized persons. However, according to the Times, the indictment could be expanded to include additional charges. In that event, pressure would increase on Franklin to cooperate with the prosecution and provide them with incriminating information about two former senior officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, who allegedly received the classified information from Franklin.


F.B.I. Questions Journalists in Military Secrets Inquiry

Federal agents have begun questioning reporters about any conversations they had with a former Pentagon analyst who has been charged with illegally disclosing military secrets, Israeli media sources reported on Monday.

The interviews started on Friday by the Federal Bureau of Investigation with four reporters, among them at least one newspaper journalist and others whose work has been published on the Internet, the officials said. They would not identify any of the journalists and said the number could increase.

The interviews represent the latest twist in a convoluted inquiry that appears to be evolving from a spy case into a broader investigation into the possible disclosure of classified information by the analyst, Lawrence A. Franklin.

The journalists to be questioned wrote articles that investigators are said to believe are based on classified information that Mr. Franklin obtained while he was working at the Defense Department.

So far, these interviews with the FBI are not obligatory, which means that which means that the journalists are under no legal obligation to answer questions.  The FBI might get permission from a federal grand jury formally interview the journalists. The interviews are said to focus on questions about what Franklin might have told the journalists.

According to the law, it is not illegal for a reporter to possess classified information, but it could be a crime for a person with a security clearance to give such information to anyone not authorized to receive it.

Franklin was charged last week with disclosing highly classified military defense information about potential attacks on American forces in Iraq.

The affidavit that accompanied the charges hinted that journalists might fall under inquiry in the case. It said Mr. Franklin ‘knowingly disclosed, without authorization, classified U.S. government information to a foreign official and members of the media.’

Franklin is also accused to have disclosed and on some military secrets on Iran to two AIPAC employees.  According to the complaint against him, those two Americans were not identified in the government’s papers, making it illegal for him to pass such information to them.

But government officials confirmed that the men were former staff members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group with close ties to the Bush administration.

Neither of the men, Steven Rosen, formerly director of foreign policy issues, or Keith Weissman, formerly senior Middle East analyst, has been charged. Abbe Lowell, a lawyer for Mr. Rosen, has said his client never received any classified documents from Mr. Franklin.

AIPAC dismissed the two employees, although they initially defended them.  Reasons of their dismissal were not explained, although observers believe they were dismissed to distance the organization from being involved in the investigation.

Franklin’s lawyer, Plato Cacheris, managed to get him free on 100,000 USD bond.  A preliminary hearing is set for May 27.

While some officials said Franklin will be indicted, Cacheris said a trial would show that ‘Mr. Franklin was, and is, a loyal American citizen.’