by James M. Wall
Representative Jane Harman (D-California) is in a tough spot. She has been caught on an NSA wiretap cutting a deal with an Israeli agent.
Will Representative Harman become the Rod Blagojevich of Washington, accused of “pay for play”? Don’t count on it. Harman has many friends inside the Israel Lobby. And the Lobby knows people who know people.
Nonetheless, a story has just been published that reports that Harman was wiretapped in a conversation in which she promised to help AIPAC in an Israel Lobby staff problem. In return, so the story reports, she expects help from AIPAC.
The story identifies the wiretap conversation as one between Harman and someone involved in “alleged Israel covert action operations in Washington.”
The conversation between Harman and the agent involved two AIPAC staffers, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, who had been indicted and were–and still are– awaiting trial for passing U.S. secrets to Israeli agents. After their indictment, the two men were fired by AIPAC. But according to the wiretap, AIPAC still wanted to help its former employees.
It was Steve Rosen, by the way, who recently led the assault by pro-Israel politicians and bloggers against the appointment of Charles Freeman as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, the high-level interagency group that prepares evaluations for the president and other senior officials.
After enduring the Rosen-led assault for three weeks, Freeman withdrew his name from consideration.
Maintaining influence with the U.S. intelligence community is important to the Israel Lobby. That importance was in play in the conversation the NSA wiretap picked up between Harman and the unidentified Israeli agent.
The wiretaps revealed what may could been a deal in the making. AIPAC promised Harman it would lobby Nancy Pelosi to let Harman hold on to her position as a member of the House Committee on Intelligence. In return, Harman would use her influence to have the Bush Justice Department reduce the charges against the two indicted AIPAC staffers to lesser felonies.
Jeff Stein, a columnist for Congressional Quarterly Politics, broke the wiretap story on April 19. It is not a new story. What is new is that the story is now out in the open, thanks to Stein and his sources.
The wiretap story had been known within the intelligence community and the Justice Department since 2005. Until now, the story had been withheld from the public. Stein begins his story:
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 [AIPAC], 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.
Apparently becoming aware of the implications of the conversation, Harman hung up. The wiretap recorded her final comment, “This conversation doesn’t exist.”
After Stein’s CQ piece appeared, the New York Times followed with its story, confirming Harman’s conversation from its sources. The Times also confirmed that Harman’s caller
. . . promised her that a wealthy California donor — the media mogul Haim Saban — would threaten to withhold campaign contributions to Representative Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who was expected to become House speaker after the 2006 election, if she did not select Ms. Harman for the intelligence post.
These wiretaps were not aimed at Harman but at the “Israeli agent” with whom she was talking. The conversation took place on George Bush’s watch before the 2006 Congressional elections at a time when the Democrats were heavily favored to take control of the House. The actual date of the call has not been revealed.
Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader, was expected to become Speaker after the Democratic victory. Harman and her caller were assuming this victory which is why Harman counted on the caller to make sure Pelosi would allow her to remain on the Intelligence Committee.
Harman was heard to say on the NSA wiretap that she was prepared to “waddle into” the AIPAC legal problem, if “you think it will make a difference.”
Pelosi did became Speaker, but she refused to provide Harman with the waiver she needed to continue as a member of the Intelligence Committee, a select committee where membership is term limited. Harman is no longer on the Committee.
After allegations emerged from the wiretaps that pro-Israel lobbyists promised to help Harman by raising money for Pelosi, the FBI launched an investigation of Harman. The investigation was eventually dropped, supposedly for “lack of evidence.”
The probe did not end because of a “lack of evidence”. According to Stein
Alberto R. Gonzales, President Bush’s top counsel and then his attorney general, called off the Harman probe, because. according to three top former national security officials, “Gonzales wanted Harman to be able to help defend the [Bush] administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, which was about to break in The New York Times and engulf the White House.”
A congressional source tells Time that the lobbying for Harman has included a phone call several months ago from entertainment industry billionaire and major Democratic party contributor Haim Saban. A Saban spokeswoman said he could not be reached for comment.
A phone call pushing for a particular member’s committee assignment might be unwelcome, but it would not normally be illegal on its own. And it is unclear whether Saban — who made much of his fortune with the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers children’s franchise — knew that lobbying Pelosi might be viewed by others as part of a larger alleged plan.
Saban has donated at least $3,000 to Harman’s campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records, and the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, which he sponsors at the prestigious Brookings Institution, boasts Harman among its biggest fans.
“When the Saban Center talks, I listen,” Harman said at a Saban Center briefing in February  on U.S. strategy in Iraq.
Stein reports further:
Justice Department attorneys in the intelligence and public corruption units who read the transcripts decided that Harman had committed a “completed crime,” a legal term meaning that there was evidence that she had attempted to complete it, three former officials said.
And they were prepared to open a case on her, which would include electronic surveillance approved by the so-called FISA Court, the secret panel established by the 1979 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to hear government wiretap requests.
First, however, they needed the certification of top intelligence officials that Harman’s wiretapped conversations justified a national security investigation.
Then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss reviewed the Harman transcript and signed off on the Justice Department’s FISA application. He also decided that, under a protocol involving the separation of powers, it was time to notify then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Minority Leader Pelosi, of the FBI’s impending national security investigation of a member of Congress — to wit, Harman.
Goss, a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, deemed the matter particularly urgent because of Harman’s rank as the panel’s top Democrat.
. . . thanks to grateful Bush administration officials, the investigation of Harman was effectively dead.
But that’s when, according to knowledgeable officials, Attorney General Gonzales intervened.
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.” . . . .
Following the publication of Stein’s CQ Politics article, Jane Harman is angry. Talking Points Memo Muckraker has the story and a video of Harman’s interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell in which she defends herself by bragging about her close relationship with AIPAC.
Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) just appeared on MSNBC to give a guns blazing denial of the allegations in CQ‘s explosive report from yesterday.
The congresswoman, speaking to Andrea Mitchell, reiterated her claim that she didn’t intervene with anyone — not the Justice Department, or the White House — in the AIPAC case. And she renewed her call for DOJ to disclose all the material associated with the investigation into her that, according to CQ‘s report, Alberto Gonzales helped stymie.
“If there are tapes out there, bring it on!” she said, calling the government wiretapping that reportedly picked up her conversation, “a gross abuse of power.”
Harman said she had no need to make a quid pro quo with AIPAC. “I have a long friendship with AIPAC. I didn’t need to cut some deal with AIPAC.”
She said it was publicly known that she wanted the House Intel committee job, and added: “I believed that I had been promised that [job] in writing,” by Nancy Pelosi.
Now what? Will an influential California congresswoman with strong ties to AIPAC, face further legal trouble? The answer may depend on the identity of that “Israeli agent” Harman talks to on the NSA wiretap.
If, as the 2006 Time article hints, the “agent” is Haim Saban, the wealthy Israeli supporter, then Josh Marshall, writing in Talking Points Memo, on April 20, doubts that the government would have much of a case, since Saban is not a likely “agent” for Israel, just a strong Israeli loyalist. Marshall struggles to find an answer, updating his story as it unfolds, in traditional blog fashion:
Let me follow up on my earlier post which asked just who that “suspected Israeli agent” was who Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) was talking to. Some quick TPM staff research shows that the original Time article on this story from 2006 identified Harman’s interlocutor as Haim Saban.
(See my correction at the bottom of this post. It’s less clear than I originally thought that we know Saban was the person on the other end of the phone call. Time notes that Saban did lobby Pelosi on Harman’s behalf and seems to suggest this as a possible part of the quid pro quo. But a closer look leaves the identity of Harman’s interlocutor an open question.)
Saban is a major entertainment industry mogul, who’s a big contributor to the Democratic party and a major supporter of Israel. If you’re interested in some fun trivia, I think a big chunk of his fortune comes from creating the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. In any case, Saban was born in Alexandria, Egypt, was I believe raised in Israel and then became a naturalized US citizen.
The key here is that the premise of the investigation into AIPAC was precisely whether people around AIPAC were not just big boosters of Israel but in some sense acting as agents of a foreign power — obviously, an extremely explosive question. So the intel sources appear to be referring to him as a “suspected Israeli agent.”
There are obviously a lot of facts we don’t know here. But if Saban is the interlocutor, it seems to me that any legal case against Harman would likely be very shaky since the claim that Saban was an agent of a foreign power would quite likely be legally unsustainable.
Late Update: Ron Kampeas has more on this at the JTA blog.
Important Late Update: A closer look at the original Time article says that Saban was the one who lobbied Pelosi, but not necessarily that Saban was the “agent” in the conversation with Harman. However, Ron Kampeas’s update at JTA says that Saban was in fact the person on the call. . . . What’s not clear to me is whether Kampeas was doing more than drawing an inference from the Time reporting. So for the moment, let’s say that the identity of Harman’s interlocutor is an open question.
Finally, Philip Weiss, the Jewish blogger-journalist who runs Mondoweiss.com, says the unsayable about Jane Harman.
The front-page story in the Times yesterday on the Jane Harman allegations didn’t say that she’s Jewish. Neither does CQ, which broke the story. Chris Matthews didn’t say she’s Jewish in his report last night–though he’s always talking about the Irish Catholics–and neither did Robert Siegel on NPR. I bet Andrea Mitchell didn’t either.
Jane Harman’s Jewish. There, I just said it. That’s why we have the blogosphere. Any intelligent person discussing this story at dinner is going to mention that she’s Jewish. That’s because Alan Dershowitz said that supporting Israel is the “secular religion” of American Jews. And because Walt and Mearsheimer point out that Jewish-Americans play a prominent part in the Israel lobby. (To read Weiss’ entire posting, click here.)
Oh, and one other thing: AIPAC’s annual love fest will be celebrated May 3-5, in Washington, DC. Half the US Senate will be there.
And this just in, Jane Harman will attend. Her reception will be above the rock star level. Israel will be represented by Israel’s Air Force Commander. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu may be a no-show, which means no White House reception.
Which is the way we will have to leave it for now. Meanwhile, for those of us keeping score on Israel, Harman and AIPAC, “fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”