- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
With all due respect to Andrew Sullivan (whose talents as a blogger I envy), the Harman incident doesn’t need much comment from me.
For those of you coming in late: Jeff Stein at Congressional Quarterly has a bombshell story that the NSA monitored a 2005 conversation between Rep. Jane Harman and a suspected "Israeli agent," in which Harmon allegedly said she would "waddle in" to the ongoing AIPAC espionage case to get the charges reduced in exchange for AIPAC’s help in helping her retain her influential position on the Intel Commmittee. Stein also reports that Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez later quashed a DOJ investigation into this incident in order to secure Harman’s support for the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.
If true, this incident is another vivid reminder of the problems created by the "special relationship," to include the web of connections between pro-Israel lobbyists, politicians who are beholden to them, and (allegedly) Israeli intelligence. One might say the similar things about the illegal payments that American businessman Morris Talansky allegedly made to former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert: It just ain’t healthy when influential people start engaging in a lot of backroom deals and under-the-table interference in another country’s domestic politics, and when the political clout of these individuals (or groups) makes politicians reluctant to speak honestly about it.
As you’d expect, some of Israel’s defenders are already arguing that there’s nothing to the story, but I’m not buying that spin (or Harman’s own denials) until we know more. Certainly the story has a lot of prima facie plausibility, given that we know that: 1) Harman wanted to keep her spot on the Intel committee; 2) Alberto Gonzalez was ethically challenged; 3) Harman did back the warrantless surveillance program; 4) groups like AIPAC have a lot of clout and could easily intervene on Harman’s behalf; and 5) politicians are in the business of doing favors for powerful interest groups. So it’s easy to imagine Harman telling the alleged "Israeli agent" (who may have been an American) that she’d make a call and see what she could do, without actually promising results. But we don’t know for sure what Harmon actually said, or if she subsequently did anything, or if Gonzalez did in fact quash the investigation for the reasons Stein suggests.
Philip Weiss and Adam Horowitz have a good rundown of the different angles over at Mondoweiss, but I want more facts. What did Harmon actually say, and did she in fact “waddle in” to the AIPAC espionage affair? In a perfect world, where government agencies were genuinely accountable, we’d get a full transcript of the phone call — including the identity of the person with whom Harmon was speaking — but don’t expect the NSA to cough that up anytime soon, especially if it was part of a potential criminal investigation.
Stein deserves full points for bringing the story to light; let’s see if the rest of the media can do its job and fill in the details. And oh yes, let’s also see if the Obama administration’s commitment to “transparency” in government includes influential Democrats in Congress.
P.S.: Whatever the ramifications of this story for U.S.-Israeli relations, the revelation that the NSA was monitoring phone calls by a member of the Permanent Committee on Intelligence — even if she was not in fact the object of the investigation — gives me the willies. But as Glenn Greenwald notes, given that Harmon was a prominent defender of warrantless surveillance, there’s a certain amount of poetic justice in the entire sorry episode.