Why did Jane Harman, the congresswoman from Venice, California, so well known for her devotion to intelligence, and particularly counterterrorism matters, who was poised to assume the chair of the House intelligence committee following a Democratic turnover in 2006, not get the nod? Outsiders considered her a safe bet to assume the post, but insiders, and especially those close to the Democratic leadership, were quick to say that it “wasn’t going to happen.” Why not? On that point, they were extremely tight lipped.
But today, the first plausible explanation is emerging. Jeff Stein at Congressional Quarterly has an explosive story out this morning.
Rep. Jane Harman , the California Democrat with a longtime involvement in intelligence issues, was overheard on an NSA wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department to reduce espionage-related charges against two officials of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel organization in Washington. Harman was recorded saying she would “waddle into” the AIPAC case “if you think it’ll make a difference,” according to two former senior national security officials familiar with the NSA transcript.
In exchange for Harman’s help, the sources said, the suspected Israeli agent pledged to help lobby Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., then-House minority leader, to appoint Harman chair of the Intelligence Committee after the 2006 elections, which the Democrats were heavily favored to win. Seemingly wary of what she had just agreed to, according to an official who read the NSA transcript, Harman hung up after saying, “This conversation doesn’t exist.”
But wait, it gets still worse. Apparently, Harman was picked up as part of an investigation that focused on the same case that was the subject of the call, in which two former AIPAC figures were charged for procuring classified materials from a Pentagon contact who worked for Douglas J. Feith and then passing them on to an Israeli agent. After the Harman intercept, an FBI investigation into Harman was undertaken, but amazingly it suddenly went away. Stein breaks some very significant ground on this, too:
Harman is said to have been picked up on a court-approved NSA tap directed at alleged Israel covert action operations in Washington. And that, contrary to reports that the Harman investigation was dropped for “lack of evidence,” it was Alberto R. Gonzales, President Bush’s top counsel and then attorney general, who intervened to stop the Harman probe.
For her part, Harman isn’t talking. She had a spokesman issue a ringing denial in her name: “These claims are an outrageous and recycled canard, and have no basis in fact. I never engaged in any such activity. Those who are peddling these false accusations should be ashamed of themselves.”
So assuming the Justice Department had the Democratic ranking member in a vise, why did it suddenly drop the charges? The answer that emerges from an examination of the timeline looks even more sinister than the original deed, and, predictably, the culprits are sitting right at the top of the Justice Department.
Stein recounts a confirmed conversation between Gonzales and Porter Goss, then director of the CIA. “Gonzales said he ‘needed Jane’ to help support the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, which was about to be exposed by the New York Times.” Apparently Harman had been deployed to persuade the Times not to run its story on the eve of the 2004 elections, when it could have reversed the paper-thin margin by which Bush won. Although now the Times story was on the record, Gonzales assured Goss that Harman could be “counted on” to help with the all-but-impossible mission of defending the felonious NSA program.
And indeed, throughout this period, Harman was the Bush Administration’s most dependable advocate and supporter on the NSA issue in the Democratic ranks, to the astonishment of many who knew her. Let’s put aside for a moment the supreme irony that Harman herself may very well have been trapped by an NSA-run warrantless wiretap, the legality of which the Justice Department was unwilling to test in court (that would be the among the few plausible explanations for Gonzales’s decision to drop the Harman investigation). If Stein’s reporting is accurate—and it has a strong air of plausibility—then we see a striking example of the operating technique of the Bush Justice Department. Caught in a bind after its brazenly unlawful sweeping surveillance operation was exposed, it built a dossier of compromising materials on a key figure of the political opposition and then exploited that information to secure her “cooperation” to provide itself with cover. There is more than a hint of blackmail and extortion in the Stein report. We are witnessing the use of the tools of law enforcement to corrupt the nation’s constitutional system. This is very serious business indeed.