- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
CQ‘s Jeff Stein writes, in an explosive story today, that California Representative Jane Harman was recorded on an NSA wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would intervene on behalf of American Israeli Public Affairs Committee officials, who were being charged with espionage:
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 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.
AIPAC official Steve Rosen had been charged with two counts of conspiring to communicate, and communicating national defense information to people not entitled to receive it. Weissman was charged with conspiracy.
AIPAC dismissed the two in May 2005, about five months before the events here unfolded.
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 Stein’s story, Justice Department attorneys were prepared to charge Harman, but Gonzales intervened on her behalf in exchange for her support during the forthcoming scandal over the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program. And she did whole-heartedly defend the program when it was revealed in the New York Times. Ironically, Harman may turn out to be the highest profile victim of an NSA wiretap to date.
Thankfully, nobody actually benefited from this exchange: Harman never got her chairmanship, the justice department still charged the AIPAC officials, and Gonzales was forced to resign, partly because of the NSA scandal.
If this is true, it’s corruption on an awe-inspiringly audacious scale on Harman and Gonzeles’s part. But former CIA directors Porter Goss and Michael Hayden as well as former director of national intelligence John Negroponte were all informed of the wiretap and allowed Gonzales to protect her.
It also makes one wonder how extensive the NSA wiretapping of members of congress was during this period and what other past phone conversations are keeping congressional leaders up at night right now. The Harman tap was part of a larger investigation of Israeli covert action in Washington and it’s hard to imagine that she was the only member they were looking at.