Rep. Jane Harman Reflects On Career

Earlier this month, Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) announced that she was resigning to become president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. During her 17-year career, she worked on a variety of issues, but her main focus was intelligence. Host Guy Raz talks to the congresswoman about what she learned as the ranking Democrat on Homeland Security's Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Jane Harman was first elected in Congress in 1992. And over the course of her career, she became one of the top experts on matters of intelligence and national security. But after 17 years in office, she's leaving.

She'll become the head of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. And when I sat down with her to ask why she's stepping down now, she said part of the reason was simple: It's just less fun to be a member of Congress these days.

Representative JANE HARMAN (Democrat, California): I first was a staffer in the Senate working for a California senator in the '70s during the Nixon impeachment. And I know this probably sounds bizarre to listeners, many of whom weren't born then, but during the Nixon impeachment, things worked.

The Congress was functioning on a bipartisan basis. He had a quite able Cabinet in many positions. The basic environmental laws were passed at that time. The impeachment resolution was bipartisan. Nixon resigned before he could be convicted by the Senate.

Segue from the early '70s to now. It's unimaginable that things could work, as well as they did 30 years ago.

RAZ: You have focused on intelligence issues, terrorism over the course of your career. Looking now at what happened in Egypt, now in Libya, how do you think it's been handled by U.S. policymakers? Do you think that the intelligence community has served the president well?

Rep. HARMAN: I have obviously been wrestling with that question for a while. I've traveled to all of these countries over the years. I've met with Gadhafi in his tent in Surt, Libya, in years back and did find him to be a very strange fellow at the time. I think he's become even stranger.

I don't know that exactly in this way, this chain of events could have been predicted. Surely, it's a wake-up call that our intelligence needs to pay a lot more attention to social media. The power of social media has been clearly demonstrated here.

RAZ: Not to bash the intelligence community, but, of course, it was criticized in the 1980s for failing to predict the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union. It seems similarly, in this situation, the intelligence communities have failed to anticipate any of this. It seems surprising, given how good we are told American intelligence agencies are.

Rep. HARMAN: I think the intelligence community is much better at tactical intelligence than it is strategic intelligence. It's pretty good now, especially with what we call technical means, at knowing who's coming over the next hill. But it's not good at thinking about, over time, how leadership in various countries is boxing itself in and how the tone-deaf leadership, for example of a Mubarak, could possibly spawn, as quickly as it did, a successful uprising in 18 days.

RAZ: What about intelligence sharing? You were critical. You've long been critical of it, saying that there hasn't been enough of it. Has that changed?

Rep. HARMAN: Horizontal sharing of information across the federal government is much better. Vertical intelligence sharing between the federal government and the local law enforcement is still a challenge. And there are reasons that it doesn't happen well enough.

One is that we over-classify information. By doing that, if a local cop on the beat doesn't have a security clearance, he can't read it. Future attacks are likely to be in places like Tucson, Arizona, or Los Angeles, California, and we really have to empower local law enforcement and local communities to look for strange things.

RAZ: What will you most miss about being a member of Congress?

Rep. HARMAN: I'll miss the people. And they have supported me over the years on a bipartisan basis. I could not have had the 25-point victory I had in November if every mayor in this district, half of them Republican, and business leaders and environmentalists and pro-choice advocates and a range of other people hadn't been out there in force. So I'll miss them.

I will also miss my colleagues in Congress, many of whom have become dear friends. Some were dear friends before I even entered Congress. And I will miss - well, I won't miss it. I was going to say I'll miss the policymaking process. I won't miss it because I think the Woodrow Wilson Center is an even better platform at this point, at least for me, in terms of helping to make strong bipartisan policy on issues that are central to the threats we face.

RAZ: That's Congresswoman Jane Harman. She's stepping down as the representative from California's 36th congressional district after serving in the House for 17 years. She'll become the president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Jane Harman, thanks and good luck.

Rep. HARMAN: Thank you, Guy. When I hear you, I think of Dan Schorr, our mutual friend. He is much missed in the Harman family. I'm sure he's missed in the NPR audience.

RAZ: He is, indeed. Thank you so much.

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