Congresswoman at Hub of Wiretap Issue

Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, talks to Robert Siegel about further details about the NSA surveillance program given to the panel Wednesday. Harman has been critical of the administration's legal case for wiretapping.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Jane Harman, Democrat of California, is the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and joins us now. Welcome back to the program, Ms. Harman.

Representative JANE HARMAN (Democrat, California): Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: What, if anything, can you tell us about what you learned at yesterday's briefing?

Representative HARMAN: Well, I'm a member of the so-called gang of eight, so I have been briefed on this program since 2003, when I became ranking member on intelligence and joined this august club. Yesterday, for the first time, the other 18 members of the House Intelligence Committee had a chance to learn in more general terms, how the program operates. And I think it was an important moment for all of them. And also what was the beginning of a restoration of a respectful relationship between the White House and Congress on this critical intelligence capability.

SIEGEL: Do you think that especially the Republican senators broke the ice here? In that the word, the message was back to the White House, you're going to have to deal with Congress about this?

Senator HARMAN: Well I think they helped break the ice. I wouldn't want to deal out Democrats. I think many of us have, on a thoughtful basis, been raising the serious legal and constitutional issues about this program for some time. And in my case, I keep getting asked, well why didn't you say something during these gang of eight proceedings? Well if I wanted to go back and consult, let's say, a brilliant former general counsel of the CIA like Jeff Smith, I would've had to say, hey Jeff, I have some questions about how FISA works and was it really the exclusive way to handle eavesdropping on Americans in America? And he would say, oh why do you have those questions? And I'd say well there's this secret program. Huh-uh, couldn't do that. I couldn't get into the details. So, there's a better way. And that better way is what FISA contemplated. And that is to go to the full intelligence committees and say, this is what we are doing or hope to do. We want to make sure it complies with the law, and if it doesn't, we'll either change the law or change the program.

SIEGEL: But if the entire committee, Congressman Harman, is bound by security constraints, obviously, is oversight any more effective than in a gang of eight meeting when you...

Senator HARMAN: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: It is?

Senator HARMAN: But it's in an environment where the goal is to do research and check things out and exercise the capability of an independent branch of government. And when FISA was passed in 1978, on a bipartisan basis, the goal was to get each branch of government active to make absolutely certain, one, that we had the security tool that we need. But number two, that we were exercising those tools consistent with our Constitution. And we achieved that for many years. And we've got to get there again.

SIEGEL: I just have one other question for you. And that is this, this program as we've heard it described by the president, was aimed at people in communication with members of al Qaeda or I believe he said...

Senator HARMAN: Al Qaeda, or al Qaeda affiliates, yeah.

SIEGEL: Al Qaeda affiliates. The Administration, one of its aims in going to war in Iraq was that Iraq was connected to al Qaeda. It's taken a rather expansive view of who's affiliated with al Qaeda. What is al Qaeda here? I mean, is, is Hamas out of bounds for example? Are the Iraqis out of bounds?

Senator HARMAN: I can't answer that because those details are classified. But certainly you could imagine those questions are being probed. A sad irony is, it is very clear to me from the intelligence that al Qaeda was not in Iraq, but it is now.

SIEGEL: So that today Abu Al Sarkawi, for example, is a target for surveillance?

Senator HARMAN: Well, I'm not going to answer that. But I think it is a very important program. I deplore the fact that it was leaked. But I do welcome this break in the ice. And a very serious effort will be made to make certain that this program fully complies with the exclusive way to eavesdrop on Americans in America, which is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

SIEGEL: Representative Harman thank you very much for talking with us today.

Senator HARMAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Jane Harman, the Democrat of California who is the ranking Democrat, the ranking minority member, of the House Intelligence Committee.

NORRIS: Our coverage of the NSA eavesdropping debate continues on line. You can find a guide to the legal and political issues involved at our website, NPR.org.

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