A U.S. government investigation of Israeli spying caught a prominent Democratic congresswoman discussing what is alleged to be a "quid pro quo" deal involving the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Washington’s powerful, hawkish pro-Israel lobby.
Rep. Jane Harman of California was recorded in 2005 on a National Security Administration (NSA) wiretap promising a suspected Israeli agent that she would intervene on behalf of two AIPAC staffers accused of passing classified information to the Israeli government, and her interlocutor responded by promising to help get Harman appointed to a top congressional intelligence post, according to an article published Sunday by Congressional Quarterly (CQ).
Perhaps even more notably, then-attorney general Alberto Gonzales later halted an FBI investigation of Harman’s actions because of Harman’s political value as a defender of the George W. Bush administration’s much-criticized warrantless wiretapping program, the CQ report states.
The Harman scandal’s political repercussions appear to be growing, and it sits at the intersection of several controversial issues among them, the influence of the "Israel lobby" on Capitol Hill, the complicity of top Democrats in Bush-era abuses, and the politicization of judicial proceedings under the Bush administration.
Harman has a reputation as one of the Democratic Party’s foremost hawks, both on Israel-Palestine and on issues related to the "global war on terror." She has long enjoyed a close relationship with AIPAC, and she is scheduled to speak at the group’s annual conference in May.
Allegations of a quid pro quo arrangement involving Harman and AIPAC are nothing new; Time magazine reported in 2006 that the FBI and Justice Department were investigating whether such a deal took place.
What was new in Sunday’s CQ piece, written by reporter Jeff Stein on the basis of conversations with multiple senior national security officials speaking anonymously, were the claims that the deal had been recorded by the NSA wiretap and that attorney general Gonzales had squelched the investigation of Harman for political reasons.
In an online discussion Monday, Stein stated the wiretap was court-approved and did not target Harman; rather, it was directed at the suspected Israeli agent with whom she was speaking.
Harman and her interlocutor were discussing the impending trial of Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, two senior AIPAC staffers who had been fired and charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917 for passing classified information to the Israeli government.
(Rosen’s and Weissman’s trial is scheduled to start this summer; Lawrence Franklin, the Pentagon staffer who passed them the classified information, pled guilty to conspiracy in 2006 and was sentenced to over 12 years in prison.)
Harman was recorded saying that she would be willing "waddle into" the AIPAC spying case to try to get the Justice Department to reduce its charges against Rosen and Weissman. In return, the suspected Israeli agent promised to help lobby Nancy Pelosi, at the time the House minority leader and now its speaker, to convince Pelosi to appoint Harman as chair of the House Intelligence Committee.
Harman at the time was serving as the Democratic ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, but had a testy relationship with Pelosi; she was ultimately passed up for the committee chair in 2006 in favor of Rep. Silvestre Reyes.
The identity of Harman’s interlocutor is unknown, although most analysts are assuming that he or she had significant ties to AIPAC, which has traditionally been dominant in lobbying members of Congress on matters pertaining to Israel.
Haim Saban, a prominent Israeli-American businessman, has been frequently mentioned in the "blogosphere" as a possible suspect, but this identification seems primarily to have been based on the fact that Saban’s name was mentioned in the 2006 Time magazine piece about Harman. So far no solid evidence has emerged to link him to the incident.
One anonymous source told the Atlantic‘s Marc Ambinder that Harman’s interlocutor was a U.S. citizen.
AIPAC denied having participated in any wrongdoing in the Harman scandal. "AIPAC would never engage in a quid pro quo related to a federal investigation or any other federal matter," spokesman Patrick Dorton said. "That is absurd."
Harman’s office also released a statement denying any wrongdoing.
"The CQ Politics story simply recycles three-year-old, discredited reporting of largely unsourced material to manufacture a ‘scoop’ out of widely known and unremarkable facts," the statement said.
"If there is anything about this story that should arouse concern, it is that the Bush administration may have been engaged in electronic surveillance of members of the congressional intelligence committees."
Harman’s concern about the Bush administration’s surveillance policies is somewhat ironic, given that she was previously the strongest defender of the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program among congressional Democrats and that she appears to have avoided a federal investigation of her AIPAC ties only as a result of her permissive stance on wiretapping.
Harman had previously helped convince the New York Times not to report on the program, and after the newspaper finally decided to run the story, she blasted its editors for compromising U.S. national security.
Due to Harman’s value in providing bipartisan cover for the administration’s policies, Gonzales intervened with CIA director Porter Goss to derail a pending FBI investigation of her, including a court-approved wiretap.
(The wiretap targeting the suspected Israeli agent that captured Harman’s conversation had been approved by the special court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and thus was not part of the NSA warrantless wiretapping program.)
According to Stein’s sources, then, the end of the FBI investigation of Harman was not due to "lack of evidence," as her defenders publicly claimed, but rather due to political considerations by the Bush administration.
The Harman scandal comes at an especially unwelcome time for AIPAC. The organization has faced mounting criticism in recent years on charges that it along with other, similarly right-leaning groups within the "Israel lobby" have for years skewed Washington’s Middle East policy in a hawkish direction and stifled open discussion of Israel-Palestine issues.
These concerns led to the formation last year of a new pro-Israel lobbying group, J Street, which aims to give voice to what it characterizes as the more dovish views held by most U.S. Jews.
With its annual conference approaching, AIPAC was hoping to head off such criticisms and portray itself in a more moderate light.
Instead, the group finds itself once again in the spotlight, linked to a story that its critics are taking as a corroboration of many of the harshest claims made about it.
(Inter Press Service)