The AIPAC and Harman Scandal
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 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.”
The fact that Harman was recorded via an NSA wiretap has some in the blogosphere declaring a victory for irony:
There’s a large poetic justice factor here in that Harman has been a big defender of potentially abusive surveillance so she doesn’t, personally, have much to stand on as an opponent of abusive surveillance when applied to her.
Thinking about that further reenforces (sic) the point that selective, unaccountable surveillance is very dangerous. A president could do a great deal to gin up pretexts to wiretap members of congress and blackmail them even without the members doing anything unusually egregious. But it’s also a reminder that we have a political system that’s substantially powered by a kind of systematic, quasi-legalized bribery.
Matthew Yglesias’ self-righteousness is supposedly justified by the fact that Rep. Harman backed the Bush Administration’s terrorist surveillance program, fondly remembered by the left as the inappropriately named “domestic warrantless wiretapping” program. However, Harman was not caught on tape by that program, but instead via a regular, old court-approved wiretap:
It’s true that allegations of pro-Israel lobbyists trying to help Harman get the chairmanship of the intelligence panel by lobbying and raising money for Pelosi aren’t new.
They were widely reported in 2006, along with allegations that the FBI launched an investigation of Harman that was eventually dropped for a “lack of evidence.”
What is new is that Harman is said to have been picked up on a court-approved NSA tap directed at alleged Israel covert action operations in Washington.
Nevertheless, thanks to Harman’s transgressions against the anti-war/anti-Bush left, in the form of her support of anti-terrorism activities, she is not getting any sympathy from Democrats. Which is a shame because it doesn’t necessarily appear that she’s done anything wrong here.
Because the article provides a paucity of specific information, I’m hard-pressed to figure out what Harman’s illegal action could have been. All the allegations are to unnamed sources, and there is no indication of what the supposed illegal activity was. The insinuation is that, based on earlier reports, Harman would help out AIPAC in return for the lobbying group raising money for Pelosi, who would then show her appreciation by promoting Harman to the Chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Yet the facts as alleged don’t even support that theory.
First of all, there is nothing wrong with Harman “waddling into” the AIPAC case merely to advocate for a lighter sentence for the Israeli defendant accused of spying. It may not have been smart, nor exactly savory, but it would not have been illegal as far as I know. If instead Harman had tried to use her official powers to alter the outcome someway (which is not alleged), I could see wher there may some problems. Merely making a case for a lighter sentence does not even begin to rise to that level, however.
Furthermore, I’m not so sure that there is any real quid pro quo here. If after Harman “waddled into” the spy case, AIPAC went to Nancy Pelosi and said “that Harman chick is one swell gal! You should promote to the head of Senate intelligence panel, or something,” what would be the problem? Does AIPAC not have the freedom of speech to say they like one congressman over another? Some might think that AIPAC is a foreign lobbyist firm (it’s not), and thus should be restricted from certain activities with respect to supporting political appointments, but that’s not true. Foreign lobbyists are more restricted when it comes to elections, but no lobbyist is prevented from advocating for the appointment of an already elected official to committee assignment or the like. So, again, based on the information provided, I’m just not sure what the charge is here.
Interestingly enough, if there is anyone who should be worried about this latest report (assuming any of it is true), it is Alberto Gonzales. According to Stein’s article, other than the fact that Harman was caught on tape, the only other new news here is 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.”
Why? Because, according to three top former national security officials, Gonzales wanted Harman to be able to help defend the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, which was about break in The New York Times and engulf the White House.
As for there being “no evidence” to support the FBI probe, a source with first-hand knowledge of the wiretaps called that “bull****.”
The identity of the “suspected Israeli agent” could not be determined with certainty, and officials were extremely skittish about going beyond Harman’s involvement to discuss other aspects of the NSA eavesdropping operation against Israeli targets, which remain highly classified.
But according to the former officials familiar with the transcripts, the alleged Israeli agent asked Harman if she could use any influence she had with Gonzales, who became attorney general in 2005, to get the charges against the AIPAC officials reduced to lesser felonies.
Harman responded that Gonzales would be a difficult task, because he “just follows White House orders,” but that she might be able to influence lesser officials, according to an official who read the transcript.
According to the rest of the story, the Justice Department and the CIA were ready to conduct a full scale investigation of Harman because of the transcripts, but Gonzales stepped in and stopped it because he needed her help:
According to two officials privy to the events, 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.
Harman, he told Goss, had helped persuade the newspaper to hold the wiretap story before, on the eve of the 2004 elections. And although it was too late to stop the Times from publishing now, she could be counted on again to help defend the program
He was right.
On Dec. 21, 2005, in the midst of a firestorm of criticism about the wiretaps, Harman issued a statement defending the operation and slamming the Times, saying, “I believe it essential to U.S. national security, and that its disclosure has damaged critical intelligence capabilities.”
Pelosi and Hastert never did get the briefing.
And thanks to grateful Bush administration officials, the investigation of Harman was effectively dead.
The problem with this version of the story is that it fails to allege what wrongdoing Harman was being accused of. Lots of “sources familiar with the transcript” are quoted, although none are named, and not a single person identified which statute or regulation Harman allegedly violated. Why is that?
Of course, regardless of whether Harman had actually committed any crime, if Gonzales called the dogs off for political reasons (as the story asserts), then he has a problem. I don’t think it would be obstruction of justice per se since, after all, he was head of the DoJ. Short-circuiting a criminal investigation for political gain, however, is exactly the sort of use of public office that Harman appears to be accused of in the Stein story.
At this point it is difficult, if not impossible, to tell exactly what happened. There are tiny whiffs of spice conjured up here there, but no real meat on any of the bones. Stein even admits at the end of his story that none of the supposed gains bargained for were actually realized:
Ironically, however, nothing much was gained by it.
The Justice Department did not back away from charging AIPAC officials Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman for trafficking in classified information.
Gonzales was engulfed by the NSA warrantless wiretapping scandal.
And Jane Harman was relegated to chairing a House Homeland Security subcommittee.
All of which calls the veracity of the story into question. I don’t know what actually went down, and apparently neither does anyone else whose willing to be named. Until there are some solid facts produced and names put behind them, this whole “scandal” looks pretty contrived in my opinion. Which really just leaves two questions: (1) Why this old story now, and (2) Cui bono? Your guess is as good as mine.