April 21, 2009 -- Despite the makings of a juicy political blow-up, official Washington stayed largely mum on the mess of allegations that erupted from the pages of the typically staid Congressional Quarterly yesterday.
The allegations are explosive: in 2006, a senior Democratic lawmaker cut a secret deal with an alleged Israeli spy; the NSA recorded the conversation and gave it to the FBI; and the former Attorney General quashed the probe to protect the pol, a political ally.
Was the Republican House leadership, dependably eager to make hay out of Democrats' misfortunes, willing to comment? Not today, thanks. What about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – would she rush to the ramparts to decry executive-branch spying on her House legislator? Not at the moment.
With both parties having potential dirty laundry in the basket, no one seemed particularly eager to see the mess aired.
Sources told CQ the NSA had taped senior House intelligence committee member Jane Harman (D-CA) promising an unnamed person she would intervene with the Bush administration to be lenient with a couple of pro-Israel lobbyists suspected of spying for Israel, in exchange for supporting her ill-fated bid to become chair of the intelligence committee.
"This conversation doesn't exist," she reportedly ended the exchange.
But sources told CQ that then-AG Alberto Gonzales blocked the FBI from probing the matter, because he "needed Jane" as a vocal supporter of the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program. According to the story, Gonzales believed Harman had helped convince the New York Times to delay publishing details of the program back in 2004.
The Times said Harman contacted its Washington bureau chief, but that its decision to hold the story for over a year was not solely due to her efforts. In its front-page account of the matter Tuesday morning, the Times confirmed the broad outline of CQ's wiretap allegations.
Largely alone in her volume, Harman lit into the story by releasing a statement saying it "recycles three year-old discredited reporting of largely unsourced material to manufacture a 'scoop'. . .
"Congresswoman Harman has never contacted the Justice Department about its prosecution of present or former AIPAC employees," the statement asserted.
On Tuesday, Harman called on the Justice Department to release unredacted copies of "all transcripts and other investigative material" relating to the flap.
In the Times account this morning, sources say the NSA transcript indicates Harman offered to contat an unidentified White House official with whom "she would have more influence." In an interview with MSNBC Tuesday, Harman denied that too. "I never called White House officials, Justice Department officials, the press--anyone. I did not intervene," she said.
Harman and the NSA Transcripts
According to sources for the Times, the NSA transcripts indicate Harman obtained a promise that a wealthy Democratic donor -- Mighty Morphin Power Rangers creator Haim Saban -- would threaten to withhold campaign contributions to Pelosi if she did not promise to give the intelligence committee chair to Harman. Saban's spokesman did not respond to the paper's inquiries.
Others implicated in the story stayed quiet -- at least for now. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales opted against comment, said his spokesman, Robert Bork, Jr., son of the Reagan-era Supreme Court nominee. Neither was the NSA in a rush to make a statement on the matter. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee – whose former employees, fighting espionage charges, were would-be beneficiaries of Harman's alleged machinations – issued a blanket denial it was in any way involved in the alleged fiasco.
Advocacy groups have not been so quiet. Watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington asked oversight offices in Congress and the Justice Department for probes into the allegations. The group says the story suggests Harman "may have committed bribery and may have violated House rules prohibiting members from engaging in ex parte communications with executive or independent agency officials on the merits of matters under their formal consideration."
The San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has been Fighting legal battles against the Bush administration and now the Obama administration related to NSA wiretapping, called the story "a textbook case of political abuse of surveillance powers, but in reverse."
Instead of the Bush administration spying on its enemies for political ends, "this is an instance of them directing surveillance away from their allies for political ends," observed EFF's Kevin Bankston.
"What other insider deals it may have struck to gather support" for its policies? What other political allies has it protected against criminal or intelligence investigations for political reasons?" he asked. "This raises serious questions about how the Bush administration conducted itself."
This story has been updated.