A few years back Sheryl Crow recorded a haunting song called “Three Days in Rome,” about a lover’s treacherous retelling of their affair in a novel.

Likewise, anonymous sources have been talking for years about a secret meeting two Bush administration Pentagon officials had in Rome with a notorious Iranian arms dealer, in December 2001.

Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney responds to q...

It’s been said that the officials, Larry Franklin and Harold Rhode, along with former Reagan White House intelligence operative Michael Ledeen, were scheming to sabotage a deal that Bush administration “moderates” were trying to make with Iran. Another version was that they were “rogue operators” plotting to overthrow the Iranian regime.

Yet another tale about Rome has Italian intelligence officials passing along a fabricated document purporting to show that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whom the Bush White House was plotting to overthrow, was buying uranium from Niger for a bomb.

All such accounts were based on anonymous sources.

But this week, one of the participants, Franklin broke a yearslong public silence to discuss what happened in Rome.

Or at least his version of events. Unfortunately, it hardly clears up the affair.

Franklin’s silence was enforced by his arrest and conviction in connection with a long-running spy scandal involving two officials from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, the most powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington.

The former Iran analyst, confronted by the FBI over leaking classified information to the two AIPAC operatives, Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, cooperated with the government to avoid jail. Charges against Rosen and Weissman were dropped in May.

But Franklin was caught up in the Bush administration’s notorious skullduggery to bring “regime change” to Iran and Iraq from the beginning.

Roman Holiday

Only three months after the 9/11 attacks, Franklin and Rhode, another Pentagon official, traveled to Rome for a meeting with Manucher Ghorbanifar, whose trail of deceiving U.S. officials goes back two decades.

Ghorbanifar, the middleman in the so-called Iran-Contra/Arms-for-Hostages scandal in the Reagan administration, had fabricated so much bad intelligence and empty schemes that the CIA had put him on a no-contact list.

Nevertheless, when Michael Ledeen, a high profile Republican intelligence operative and longtime associate of Ghorbanifar, came calling during the panicky weeks after 9/11, Bush administration neoconservatives couldn’t resist.

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The Iranian had a plan for regime change in Teheran — again.

Senior White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley and his deputy, Zalmay Khalilzad, “were enthusiastic,” Ledeen told me. Pentagon officials Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz , the deputy and undersecretary, respectively, of Defense, were also game, Franklin said.

His immediate boss, William Luti, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney who headed Near East issues at Defense, put him on the team.

“He said, ‘We’d like you to go on this mission,’” Franklin recalled in an interview. “Feith, Wolfowitz, they’re in favor of it.”

Had anyone mentioned Ghorbanifar’s reputation as a con man extraordinaire? I asked Franklin. That the Iranian schemer was on the CIA’s burn list?

“Yeah, I was told all that,” Franklin said. “But that’s not a reason not to meet someone. It doesn’t mean that everything a person” says is untrue.

“I was advised not to go see Ghorbanifar by DIA,” (the Defense Intelligence Agency), he added. “I invited DIA to come, but they declined because there was a CIA no-contact order on Ghorbanifar.”

“If you don’t know anything,” Franklin said, “you’ll meet with everyone.”

And the Bush administration didn’t know anything about Iran, he said. Wolfowitz often called him directly at home to talk about it.

“The purpose of the meeting was to get . . . first-hand intelligence on Iran, because the CIA station there had been rolled up a couple of times,” Franklin said.

“Ghorbanifar had another item on his agenda,” he added.

Money Upfront

And that was?

“Getting money from our government to implement a scheme which he thought would overthrow the government in Iran,” Franklin said.

Ghorbanifar’s plan was “to buy off a bunch of truck drivers who would shut down the main arteries in Teheran. They would block traffic for miles around.”

And then?

“At that point, he felt he could shake the regime from the inside. . . . He could get enough people up, a critical mass, to do the deed, to overthrow the regime.”

Ghorbanifar sketched out his scenario for Franklin during a 2 a.m. meeting in his hotel lobby, Franklin said.

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He wanted $5 million. “Seed money.”

Franklin didn’t like it.

“I didn’t tell him, but I thought it was amateurish and would’ve gotten people killed and America embarrassed. And we would be out $5 million, while he would be $5 million richer.”

As loony as it was, Franklin says some of his neoconservative colleagues back in Washington liked the idea, among them, Cheney’s top national security aide, John Hannah.

“He was wondering why I didn’t support Ghorbanifar,” Franklin said.

Hannah would not discuss the affair for the record except to say he never met with Franklin to discuss it.

Apprised of that response, Franklin stuck to his guns.

“Oh, yes, he did,” Franklin said. “It was at the Cosi restaurant near the Old Executive Office Building. I remember it in spades.”

Other Voices, Other Rooms

As for plotting to undermine Bush administration moderates who wanted a dialogue with Iran, it never came up, Franklin insisted.

“No, not in Rome,” he said. “The idea was bandied about in the Pentagon. I don’t know where the idea came from. There was gossip, about whether anyone in Policy was pushing it. But it certainly wasn’t discussed in Rome.”

How about the phony Niger uranium documents? I asked. Did that come up?

“No it did not, not that I can remember.”

Then why did he meet with Italian intelligence officials, who were said to have a role in peddling the phony documents?

“They gave us safe houses, restaurants,” Franklin said. “They were our shield. Mike [Ledeen] had good relations with them.“

Did Ledeen clear the meeting with CIA station chief Jeff Castelli? I asked. He was reportedly furious about being kept out of the loop.

“Yes,” Franklin said. “Mike talked to him.”

Ledeen: “Who’s Castelli?”

All clear?

Jeff Stein can be reached at jstein@cq.com.

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