The bombshell by Jeff Stein of Congressional Quarterly — that an NSA wiretap picked up Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department to reduce espionage charges against two officials of American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in exchange for the agent's agreement to lobby Nancy Pelosi to name Harman chair of the House Intelligence Committee — is spreading like wildfire on the Internets.
But is it true?
According to Stein, 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."
It's true that allegations of pro-Israel lobbyists trying to help Harman get the chairmanship of the intelligence panel by lobbying and raising money for Pelosi aren't new.
They were widely reported in 2006, along with allegations that the FBI launched an investigation of Harman that was eventually dropped for a "lack of evidence."
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.
And that, contrary to reports that the Harman investigation was dropped for "lack of evidence," it was Alberto R. Gonzales, President Bush's top counsel and then attorney general, who intervened to stop the Harman probe.
Why? Because, according to three top former national security officials, Gonzales wanted Harman to be able to help defend the administration's warrantless wiretapping program, which was about break in The New York Times and engulf the White House.
As for there being "no evidence" to support the FBI probe, a source with first-hand knowledge of the wiretaps called that "bull****." ...
Such accounts go a long way toward explaining not only why Harman was denied the gavel of the House Intelligence Committee, but failed to land a top job at the CIA or Homeland Security Department in the Obama administration.
In a prepared statement, Harman responded by saying, "These claims are an outrageous and recycled canard, and have no basis in fact. I never engaged in any such activity. Those who are peddling these false accusations should be ashamed of themselves."
But bloggers from the right and left are starting to make waves about this. A blog post this morning from Michelle Malkin notes,
If even half of what's in Jeff Stein's CQ exclusive is true, this is a blockbuster scandal of historic proportions. It makes all of the pay-to-play scandals to date look like kindergarten games.
And Salon's Glenn Greenwald calls the story
a model of excellent reporting, as it relies on numerous sources with first-hand knowledge of the NSA transcripts (and what sweet justice it would be if Harman's guilt were established by government eavesdropping). It should be noted that Harman has issued a general denial of wrongdoing (but does not appear to deny that she had the discussion Stein reports), and the sources in Stein's story are anonymous (though because they're disclosing classified information and exposing government wrongdoing, it's a classic case of when anonymity is justifiable; and note Stein's efforts to provide as much information as possible about his sources and why they are anonymous). ... Given all the very serious issues this story raises — involving what seem to be credible allegations of very serious wrongdoing by a key member of Congress, the former Attorney General [Alberto Gonzales] and one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the country — full-scale investigations are needed, to put it mildly.
But not everyone is buying it. In a post appearing in the Capital J blog — which focuses on Jewish-related news and information — Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency writes that the leaks about Harman "smell to high heaven":
There are a lot of problems with how this story came about. Its sources seem to have it in for Harman, yet their supposedly damning leaks are rehash — and the story's major news is not about her alleged misdeeds, but that the National Security Agency was listening in on her call, and that the CIA boss wanted to get a tap on her.
And Kampeas asks:
Why would Harman risk her career and her freedom for a lost cause? The federal government does not mysteriously reverse an indictment within months of winning it. This is where the timeline matters; if Time is right and this occurred in mid-2005, it's conceivable Harman had the conversation before Aug. 4 of that year, when the indictment came down; she might have had time to influence an outcome. If CQ is right, and it happens a few months later, Harman was either humoring a stunningly gullible interlocutor, or she understood the request as "do what you can, even though we both know its hopeless" — and windmill-tilting doesn't usually achieve the level of "conspiracy."
What Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo wants to know is what were the circumstances
under which a member of Congress ended up having her phone conversations recorded by the NSA. The article suggests it was a by-the-books wiretap — part of a highly-classified probe of Israeli agents in the US, which led to the indictments of two AIPAC employees — and not one of the 'warrantless' ones. But we've seen so much funny business on that front that I'm not sure that's enough information.
Next, is it possible Harman knew these tapes existed and was compromised vis a vis the administration? That's purely speculation on my part. Nothing in the article suggests that. But hearing it alleged that Gonzales protected her because he knew she'd be so helpful — that really makes me wonder.
This raises lots and lots of questions — not least of which is why this is coming out right now. Any particular reason people in the intel community would want to start talking to the press right now?
More to come.