2d probe at the Pentagon examines actions on Iraq
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But investigators for the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is closely scrutinizing the office as part of a formal probe of pre-Iraq War intelligence-gathering, and Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee, who are conducting a preliminary probe, say that the full picture of the office's activities may include more than meets the eye. They are seeking additional documents and interviews from policy officials.
After months of delay, the investigators said, they are getting cooperation from Feith and his staff.
Some of the incidents that prompted the probes are already known.
Franklin and another employee, Harold Rhode, met secretly with Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian arms dealer, in Italy in December 2001 and subsequently in Paris. The Paris meeting was not approved by Pentagon officials.
Ghorbanifar, who has been linked to the Iran-contra scandal of the 1980s, has said the men discussed ways to destabilize the Iranian regime, labeled a part of President Bush's "axis of evil" for support of terrorist groups and suspected development of weapons of mass destruction.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last fall that the meeting was requested by Iranian officials to discuss the war on terrorism, but nothing came of it.
But one congressional investigator said staffers are looking into whether there was an exchange of money between US officials and Ghorbanifar or other Iranians, and whether any proposals for cooperation included seeking assistance from the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a group in Iraq that is seeking to overthrow the Iranian regime but is labeled a terrorist group by the US State Department.
Another Near East policy official, F. Michael Maloof, was stripped of his security clearance a year ago after the FBI linked him to a Lebanese-American businessman under investigation by the FBI for weapons trafficking. A handgun registered to Maloof was found in the possession of Imad el Hage, a suspected arms dealer.
Investigators are seeking to learn whether Maloof's alleged contacts with Hage and a hard-line former Lebanese general, Michel Aoun, may have been part of a back-channel effort to destabilize Syria, which has occupied Lebanon for nearly two decades.
"People are concerned about covert action being conducted by a policy office with no legal mandate to do so," said one Democratic official involved in the Judiciary Committee inquiry. "If the Senate and House intelligence committees in their review only look at the Chalabi relationship but don't look at the office's role in what was in effect covert action to explore regime change in the entire arc of the Middle East, then their inquiry will be a joke."
The official said he is trying to determine if some of the office's activities may have been prohibited by the Hughes-Ryan Amendment, which holds that all activity to undermine a foreign government must be approved by the president in a specific document approving such activity.
Supporters of Feith and his policy advisers roundly deny accusations that the office is a rogue operation. They say the two ongoing FBI inquiries into alleged leaks of classified information amount to what one called "McCarthyism," a sustained campaign by opponents of Bush's policies to discredit their views and brand them as pawns for the Israeli lobby merely because they are pushing for stronger action against terrorist states.
They note that no arrests have been made, only charges and leaks to journalists from unnamed officials.
"It sounds to me that it is an investigation that was leaked for maximum adverse affect on the office, which has been subjected to a lot of other criticism," said Frank Gaffney, president of the conservative Center for Security Policy and a former assistant defense secretary under President Reagan. "You have people who are controversial. They are taking positions that last time I checked, the president . . . was closely associated with, that are opposed by other people in the bureaucracy.
"One of the tricks of bureaucratic warfare is to attack them in the press. It makes them less effective," Gaffney said. "I think that is going on here."
Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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