How many hot-buttons does the news that the NSA wiretapped Congresswoman Jane Harman involve? Let's count: 1) public corruption, 2) "Israel Lobby" espionage, 3) intelligence agencies spying on lawmakers and 4) Bush's hyper-politicization of everything.
The National Security Agency eavesdropped on a telephone conversation Harman had with a "suspected Israeli agent" in October 2005, in which Harman agreed to try to quash an investigation into an Israeli lobby.
At the time, the Justice Department was pursuing an espionage case against two lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful Israeli lobbying group. According to CQ's Jeff Stein, the NSA was listening in on an Israeli operative's calls when they picked up a conversation between the target and Harman in which the congresswoman promised to "waddle in" to the AIPAC case "if you think it'll make a difference."
In exchange, Stein reports, the Israeli operative promised to use his (or her) influence to help Harman land the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee. In October 2005, the Democrats were heavily favored to win the mid-term election; the wrangling for committee assignments had already begun, and Nancy Pelosi, who was expected to be named Speaker, was signaling that Harman was not a candidate for the Intelligence Committee.
This is the second report that the NSA was spying on members of Congress to come to light in recent weeks; last week the New York Times reported that the agency tried to tap the phone of an unidentified congressman in late 2005 or early 2006 (the tap never happened). The Harman wiretap, according to Stein, was approved by a court.
According to Stein, Harman ended the quid-pro-quo negotiation by saying, "This conversation doesn't exist."
Nothing came of the conversation, because a) Harman didn't get the intelligence committee, and b) the Department of Justice continued with it's case against the AIPAC staffers. (So much for the all-powerful Israeli lobby!)
Allegations that Harman was in unseemly cahoots with AIPAC are not new; the FBI launched an investigation into Harman's relationship with the lobby back in 2006. But the wiretap is the first report of solid evidence that the FBI was on to something.
According to Stein the FBI was on the verge of officially opening a case against Harman based on the wiretap, but the White House scuttled it:
But that's when, according to knowledgeable officials, Attorney General Gonzales intervened.
According to two officials privy to the events, Gonzales said he "needed Jane" to help support the administration's warrantless wiretapping program, which was about to be exposed by the New York Times.
Harman, he told Goss, had helped persuade the newspaper to hold the wiretap story before, on the eve of the 2004 elections. And although it was too late to stop the Times from publishing now, she could be counted on again to help defend the program
He was right.
On Dec. 21, 2005, in the midst of a firestorm of criticism about the wiretaps, Harman issued a statement defending the operation and slamming the Times, saying, "I believe it essential to U.S. national security, and that its disclosure has damaged critical intelligence capabilities."
And thanks to grateful Bush administration officials, the investigation of Harman was effectively dead.
Harman is in deep trouble. Through a spokesperson, she told CQ that the allegations are an "outrageous and recycled canard, and have no basis in fact."
The most interesting question is: Who was the "suspected Israeli operative"? Harman was the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, so it's not like she was palling around and making deals with just any old spy off the street. Whomever she was talking to was likely a powerful person in Washington. And a spy.