Quite aside from the wonderful irony of Jane Harman’s transformation from prominent Democratic defender of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping into a civil libertarian par excellence – which has been definitively celebrated by Glenn Greenwald over at Salon – the story of how this leading "national security Democrat" sold out her nation’s security on behalf of a foreign power underscores the all-pervasive and corrupting influence of Israel’s lobby in the U.S. Harman was caught on tape with a "suspected Israeli agent," according to Congressional Quarterly, agreeing to intervene with the U.S. Justice Department and the White House to get the espionage charges against two AIPAC employees reduced. In return, the Israeli agent promised AIPAC would put pressure on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to get Harman appointed head of the House intelligence committee. This pressure included having Haim Saban – whose largesse underwrites the Saban Center at Brookings, as well as a number of Democratic Party organizations – threatening to cut off the funding unless Pelosi caved.
AIPAC, of course, is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest and most effective of the country-based Washington lobbies, generally rated up there with the NRA and AARP as one of the lobbying behemoths. Like many other commentators, I have often noted the distorting effect the Lobby has had on policymaking decisions and pointed out its deleterious effect on our national interests. However, Antiwar.com, and this columnist in particular, have gone where others have feared to tread, shining a spotlight on the dim area where lobbying activities overlap with espionage.
It should be noted that this was not a warrantless wiretap, of the sort Harman championed, but one approved by a special FISA court. Naturally, Harman issued a statement immediately denying the charges, averring that this "canard" is nothing new. It’s true that some of this story leaked out in 2006, but, as CQ reporter Jeff Stein put it in his piece, "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."
This is very similar to what happened to Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, the two AIPAC officials (since unceremoniously dumped by their employer), and their fellow conspirator, former Pentagon Iran desk chief Larry Franklin. There they were, Rosen and Weissman, sitting with Naor Gilon in a restaurant in Arlington, Va., shooting the breeze, when in walks Franklin with an offer to unload classified material. Was it just serendipitous that the FBI’s counterintelligence unit had the place bugged and was listening in as Franklin volunteered to engage in espionage on behalf of Israel?
Gilon, chief of political affairs at the Israeli embassy, had been under surveillance at least since 2001, when, as Richard Sale reported, "the FBI discovered new, ‘massive’ Israeli spying operations in the East Coast, including New York and New Jersey," according to "one former senior U.S. government official." ( I reported on some of the activities of these operations in my short book, The Terror Enigma.)
"The FBI began intensive surveillance on certain Israeli diplomats and other suspects and was videotaping Naor Gilon, chief of political affairs at the Israeli embassy in Washington, who was having lunch at a Washington hotel with two lobbyists from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby group. Federal law enforcement officials said they were floored when Franklin came up to their table and sat down.”
Was a connection to Gilon Harman’s undoing? He pops up yet again amid widespread speculation that the former diplomat and undoubted intelligence officer was the "Israeli agent" on the line with Harman.
Gilon, by the way, has just been appointed to a top position in Avigdor Lieberman’s foreign ministry. As Richard Silverstein points out, the awkwardness this inserts into U.S.-Israeli relations may be quite deliberate:
"In Israel, if you successfully spy on the U.S. you’re rewarded with plum assignments and cabinet jobs. I’m fairly certain that this is also Lieberman’s way of tweaking Obama, saying, ‘you think you’re going to isolate me? I’ll show you. I’ll make my right hand man someone who has made a fool out of your government.’"
With the appointment of Uzi Arad, another Israeli spook involved in the Rosen-Weissman case, to a top spot on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security staff, we can count this as a doubly insulting provocation.
Stein cites "a recently retired longtime national security official who was closely involved in the AIPAC investigation" as saying: "It’s the deepest kind of corruption, which was years in the making. It’s a story about the corruption of government — not legal corruption necessarily, but ethical corruption."
This ethical corruption is what allowed Harman to believe she could bulldoze her way into a House committee chair by playing the AIPAC card. The same corruption led her, a canny politician, to assume that Naor Gilon, rather than any American, had the decisive say when it came to committee appointments in the Congress of the United States. Isn’t that taking the "special relationship" just a little too far?
What’s apparent, in any case, is that the counterintelligence community has long taken an interest in the widening scope and increasing scale of Israel’s covert operations in the US, even if our mainstream media has shied away from the subject. They’ve been watching this crowd 24/7 for years, as is apparent from the indictment of Rosen, Weissman, and Franklin, which details acts that go back to 1999. That’s how they got Franklin and finally caught up with Ben Ami Kadish, who shared an Israeli handler with the infamous Jonathan Pollard. Kadish was picked up the day after his Israeli handler called [.pdf] him to tell him to lie: another NSA intercept approved by a FISA court, another Israeli spy snared. Which just goes to show that Jane Harman, AIPAC, and the IngSoc faction of the GOP were wrong: we don’t need warrantless wiretapping – the legal kind works fine.
This story has legs, if only because it illustrates a prime example of Bush-era corruption. Alberto Gonzales reportedly scotched the investigation into Harman – which was widely and erroneously reported as having found nothing – because he needed her help on the warrantless wiretaps issue. Did she make a deal with him, or was the quid pro quo implicit? It’s a sad day when we have to wiretap our own government officials to dig out the truth and protect our own security, but better them than the rest of us. They, after all, are the source of the corruption: indeed, it might not be a bad idea to allow warrantless wiretaps only of government officials, both elected and appointed. Now that would put a real crimp in the culture of corruption.
The Harman corruption-of-justice case illuminates a subject that has long been simmering on the back burner, hardly ever covered by the mainstream news media, and that is the upcoming trial of the AIPAC defendants, which is so underreported that I can’t even find a reference to the trial date, except that it is "upcoming" and scheduled to occur sometime in June. On trial are Steve Rosen, longtime spark plug behind AIPAC’s successful – some would say too successful – lobbying strategy, and Keith Weissman, AIPAC’s top Iran specialist. It is a trial that has had so many cancellations that a timeline of them all would take up a good part of this column. Suffice to say that the AIPAC defendants have put up quite a fight, delaying the trial for years, demanding that the government allow the introduction of classified material into the court record, and compelling high-profile figures such as Condi Rice and Steve Hadley to appear as witnesses. A sympathetic judge has granted them a good deal of leeway, and they have just about graymailed government prosecutors into a corner.
Will the case be dropped before it ever comes to trial? The clock is ticking, and we’ll soon know the answer to that question. (As I put this column to bed, the Washington Post reports prosecutors may very well drop the case.) As relations between the U.S. and Israel continue to sour, however, the Rosen-Weissman affair is a fairly accurate barometer of the rising mutual hostility between Washington and Tel Aviv. Israel’s new right-wing government is preparing for a showdown with the Obama administration over the Palestinian question, the Iranian issue, and the ongoing expansion of the settlements. If Obama is seeking a deal, there is widespread speculation that he could use the Iran issue as a bargaining chip: promising to take a harder line toward Tehran in exchange for a semblance of Israeli reasonableness on Palestinian statehood. The Rosen-Weissman trial could well be another such bargaining chip: a tradeoff that will make us less secure while advancing the career of an ambitious politician – a politician, in that sense, not unlike Rep. Harman.
What’s significant about the Harman case is that all the elements that have given the Israel Lobby such power in Washington – political heft, lots of money, and the exception-making requirements of the "special relationship" – have come together in a kind of Harmanic convergence, if you will, to illustrate why and how the Lobby’s influence is corrupting.
The sooner the public gets this message, the sooner our lawmakers will respond. And the proper response, to start with, is to make AIPAC do what every foreign lobbyist has to do, and that is comply with the Foreign Agents Registration Act by registering as an agent of a foreign power. This would put legal restrictions in place that would cut the Lobby down to its proper size and help correct the Israel-centric distortion of American foreign policy, which has been so skewed in the wrong direction for so long chiefly because of domestic political pressures. It’s long past time to cut off that pressure at its source.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
Thursday will mark the premier of Kelley Vlahos to the stable of regular Antiwar.com columnists.
Kelley has been a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and we have linked to many of her articles there. She is also a Washington correspondent for the D.C.-based Homeland Security Today and a longtime political writer for FoxNews.com. She has written about everything from national security and civil liberties in the wake of 9/11 to campaign finance reform, veterans, the Middle East, gun control, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Welcome, Kelley!