Sources: Wiretap Recorded Rep. Harman Promising to Intervene for AIPAC

Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat long involved in intelligence issues, was overheard on a 2005 National Security Agency wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department to reduce espionage-related charges against two former officials of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee.

In return, the Israeli agent pledged to help lobby for Harman to become chairwoman of the House Intelligence Committee.

(Read Jeff Stein’s Q&A session about his column.)

Two former senior national security officials, one who has read a transcript of the wiretap and a second who was briefed on its contents, said Harman agreed during the conversation to “waddle into” the AIPAC case “if you think it’ll make a difference.” Their accounts were confirmed by a third source with knowledge of the wiretapped conversation and subsequent events.

AIPAC is the most powerful pro-Israel organization in Washington.

In exchange, the sources reported, the suspected Israeli agent pledged to lobby SpeakerNancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who was then the House minority leader, to appoint Harman chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee if Democrats won control of the House in the 2006 elections.

Harman hung up the phone after saying, “This conversation doesn’t exist,” according to the former officials.

The sources, who discussed the matter only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of domestic NSA eavesdropping, said Justice Department officials decided there was sufficient evidence to initiate and FBI investigation of Harman. But at the last minute, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales aborted the plan, saying that he needed Harman’s help defending the administration’s warrantless wiretap program.

A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, asked Monday for an investigation of Harman by the Office of Congressional Ethics and for a Justice Department probe of why a case against the congresswoman was not pursued.

Harman declined to discuss the allegation, instead issuing a denial through a spokesman. “These claims are an outrageous and recycled canard, and have no basis in fact,” she said in a prepared statement. “I never engaged in any such activity. Those who are peddling these false accusations should be ashamed of themselves.”

Allegations that pro-Israel lobbyists tried to help Harman get the chairmanship by lobbying Pelosi and raising money for the future Speaker are not new. They were widely reported in 2006, as was an FBI investigation that was reportedly dropped for lack of evidence.

What is new is that Harman is said by the former national security officials to have been picked up on a court-approved NSA wiretap directed at alleged Israel covert action in Washington.

Another piece of news is that contrary to reports the Harman investigation was dropped for lack of evidence, the former national security officials and a former high-ranking law enforcement source say that it was Gonzales, President George W. Bush’s top counsel before becoming attorney general, who intervened to stop the Harman probe because the administration wanted Harman to be able to defend the warrantless wiretapping program the New York Times was about to disclose.

As for there being no evidence to support the FBI probe, the source with first-hand knowledge of the wiretap transcript called that “bull****.”

Gonzales said through a spokesman he would have no comment.

Pelosi passed over Harman for the Intelligence Committee chairmanship, eventually appointing Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas. Although she was frequently said to be a candidate for a high post at the CIA or Homeland Security Department, she failed to win a spot in the Obama administration.

Case Is Dropped

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.

The identity of the “suspected Israeli agent” could not be determined with certainty, and the former national security officials would not discuss other aspects of the highly classified NSA eavesdropping operation against Israeli targets.

Former AIPAC official Steve Rosen was charged with two counts of conspiring to communicate, and communicating national defense information to people not entitled to receive it. Keith Weissman, who had also left AIPAC over the scandal, was charged with conspiracy. AIPAC dismissed the two in May 2005, about five months before Harman’s intercepted conversation.

Harman responded that influencing 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.

Justice Department attorneys in the intelligence and public corruption units who read the transcripts decided that Harman had committed a crime, according to the national security and law enforcement sources.

The Justice Department attorneys were prepared to pursue a case against Harman, which would include electronic surveillance approved by the so-called FISA Court, the secret panel established by the 1979 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to hear government wiretap requests. First, however, they needed the certification of top intelligence officials that Harman’s wiretapped conversations justified a national security investigation.

Then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss reviewed the Harman transcript and signed off on the Justice Department’s FISA application, two sources said. He also decided that, under a protocol involving the separation of powers, it was time to notify then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Minority Leader Pelosi, of the FBI’s impending national security investigation of a member of Congress — to wit, Harman.

Goss, a former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, deemed the matter particularly urgent because of the high rank of Harman, a Democrat, on the Intelligence panel.

But according to the two former national security officials, Gonzales said he “needed Jane” to help support the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, which was about to be exposed by the Times. Harman, he told Goss, had helped persuade the newspaper to hold the wiretap story 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.

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.”

Pelosi and Hastert were never notified and the investigation of Harman was effectively dead.

Goss declined an interview request, and the CIA did not respond to a request to interview former Director Michael V. Hayden, who, the sources said, was informed of the Harman transcript.

The first director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte, opposed an FBI investigation of Harman, according to officials familiar with his thinking, and left it to Goss or FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, to decide what to do. Negroponte was traveling last week and did not respond to questions relayed to him through an assistant.

“It’s the deepest kind of corruption,” said one of the sources, recently retired law enforcement official who was involved in the AIPAC investigation. “It’s a story about the corruption of government — not legal corruption necessarily, but ethical corruption.”

The two former AIPAC officials are scheduled to stand trial in June.

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