By MATT APUZZO, MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT and MARK MAZZETTI
WASHINGTON — American investigators intercepted a conversation this year in which a Pakistani official suggested that his government was receiving American secrets from a prominent former State Department diplomat, officials said, setting off an espionage investigation that has stunned diplomatic circles here.
That conversation led to months of secret surveillance on the former diplomat, Robin L. Raphel, and an F.B.I. raid last month at her home, where agents discovered classified information, the officials said.
The investigation is an unexpected turn in a distinguished career that has spanned four decades. Ms. Raphel (pronounced RAY-full) rose to become one of the highest-ranking female diplomats and a fixture in foreign policy circles, serving as ambassador to Tunisia and as assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs in the Clinton administration.
Ms. Raphel, 67, considered one of the leading American experts on Pakistan, was stripped of her security clearances last month and no longer has access to the State Department building.
The investigation is a rare example of an F.B.I. espionage case breaking into public view. Counterintelligence — the art of spotting and thwarting spies — is the F.B.I.’s second-highest priority, after fighting terrorism, but the operations are conducted almost entirely in secret. On any given day, Washington’s streets crawl with F.B.I. surveillance teams following diplomats and spies, adding to files that are unlikely ever to become public.
The senior American officials briefed on the case spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to be identified discussing a continuing investigation. Spokesmen for the F.B.I. and Department of Justice declined to comment.
Ms. Raphel has not been charged with a crime. The scope of the investigation is not known, and it is unclear exactly what the Pakistani official said in the intercepted conversation that led to suspicion about Ms. Raphel. It is also not clear whether the conversation was by telephone, email or some other form of communication.
Still, the new details shed some light on the evidence that Justice Department prosecutors are weighing as they decide whether to bring charges. And they help explain why the F.B.I. viewed the matter seriously enough to search her home and State Department office, steps that would bring the investigation into the open.
Ms. Raphel is among a generation of diplomats who rose through the ranks of the State Department at a time when Pakistan was among America’s closest allies and a reliable bulwark against the Soviet Union. After retiring from the government in 2005, she lobbied on behalf of the Pakistani government before accepting a contract to work as a State Department adviser.
While the F.B.I. secretly watched Ms. Raphel in recent months, agents suspected that she was improperly taking classified information home from the State Department, the officials said. Armed with a warrant, the agents searched her home in a prosperous neighborhood near the Maryland border with Washington, and found classified information, the officials said.
Andrew Rice, a spokesman for Ms. Raphel, said: “Nothing has changed for Ambassador Raphel. She has not been told she is the target of an investigation, and she has not been questioned.”
In a sign of the seriousness of the case, Ms. Raphel has hired Amy Jeffress, a lawyer who until recently was one of the Justice Department’s top national security prosecutors. Ms. Jeffress served as a counselor to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on security matters, as the Justice Department’s attaché to London, and as chief of national security at the United States Attorney’s Office in Washington. She joined the law firm Arnold & Porter this year. Ms. Jeffress declined to comment.
Taking home classified information is a crime, but charges are rare. The Justice Department declined to prosecute Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales in 2008 for keeping information about the National Security Agency’s wiretapping program at his house. John M. Deutch, the C.I.A. director from May 1995 to December 1996, lost his security clearances but was not charged for keeping government secrets on his home computer. Samuel R. Berger, a former national security adviser, pleaded guilty in 2005 to a misdemeanor and paid a $50,000 fine for removing classified documents from the National Archives.
While the United States and Pakistan remain allies in the war on terrorism, tensions between the two countries have been frequently strained. American officials suspect Pakistan of supporting the Taliban and believe Pakistan has dispatched several double agents to collect intelligence from the United States government. Pakistani officials bristle at the C.I.A.’s use of drones and operatives inside the country.
This animosity has spawned a new generation of American Foreign Service officers who view Pakistan with suspicion, making Ms. Raphel and her generally sympathetic view of Pakistan out of step within the State Department.
Nevertheless, Ms. Raphel’s reputation as a seasoned diplomat with broad connections in Pakistan led Richard C. Holbrooke, who was then special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, to recruit her out of retirement to work at the American Embassy in Islamabad, helping to disburse aid money.
Her longstanding relations with Pakistan’s government have also made her an object of scorn in India, the bitter rival of Pakistan, and a country that has grown closer to the United States during both the Bush and Obama administrations. The Indian news media has aggressively covered the espionage case in recent weeks, with The Times of India describing Ms. Raphel as a “brazenly pro-Pakistan partisan in Washington” with a “pathological dislike for India which she did little to conceal.”
In 1988, Ms. Raphel’s former husband, Arnold L. Raphel, then the American ambassador to Pakistan, was killed in a mysterious plane crash with the president of Pakistan, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq.
The cause of the crash was never determined, spawning numerous theories, including that it was an assassination and that nerve gas in a canister hidden in a crate of mangoes had been dispersed in the plane’s air-conditioning system. (NY Times)