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Why the Harman leaks smell to high heaven-UPDATE 2

I just posted a brief picking up this CQ Politics story by Jeff Stein, re-raising allegations that U.S. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) attempted to intervene on behalf of Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, the two former AIPAC staffers charged with leaking U.S. secrets to Israeli diplomats, media and their colleagues.

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.

Also, the timing, weeks before the trial, is suspect, and looks a lot like a desperate late in the game bid to salvage what has become a dog of a case.

But let’s get the details out of the way by simply reposting the brief:

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A former CIA director asked for a wiretap on a Jewish congresswoman after she allegedly agreed to intervene on behalf of two indicted former AIPAC staffers.

CQ Politics, a division of Congressional Quarterly, reported Sunday that then-CIA chief Porter Goss agreed to request a wiretap on U.S. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) after she agreed to “waddle into” the classified information leaks case against Steve Rosen, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s former foreign policy chief, and Keith Weissman, its former Iran analyst.

Harman allegedly was speaking with an “Israeli agent;” the alleged quid pro quo was that the agent would lobby on Harman’s behalf in her quest to become chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.

According to the CQ story, Alberto Gonzales, the then- U.S. attorney general, shut down the case because Harman was useful in lobbying on behalf of the administration’s quest for expanded eavesdropping powers.

The events allegedly took place in the summer or fall of 2005. CQ quoted Harman as denying the allegations.

Similar reports surfaced in October 2006, just prior to the midterm elections.Those reports named Haim Saban, the Israeli-American entertainment magnate who is a major donor to the Democratic Party and to AIPAC, as one of several Jewish donors to Harman who allegedly discussed the matter with Harman and with Pelosi.

The CQ report, which cites former national security officials, includes direct quotes from the transcript of Harman’s alleged conversation with the Israeli agent.

Okay, now why this smells.

* The selected quotes from the alleged transcript do not necessarily add up to a quid pro quo:

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.”

(snip)

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.

(snip)

Harman responded that 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.

So, an interlocutor – and, if it was Saban, a major donor – asks Harman to see what she can do to intervene on behalf of Rosen and Weissman. She says she doesn’t think she can do much, but she’ll do what she can. So far, congressional business as usual – not pretty, but not illegal. What happens then is not clear: According to the narrative peddled by the former national security officials, it had been agreed that this would be in exchange for the Israeli agent lobbying Pelosi. She hangs up abruptly saying, "This conversation doesn’t exist," "seemingly wary of what she had just agreed to." But had she agreed to a deal? What if her interlocutor suggested a quid pro quo after she agreed to look into the case? Harman realizes the "agent" is crossing over into illegal territory and hangs up, and says something — "This conversation doesn’t exist" – that could just as easily be understood as "all bets are off m—–f——, and don’t call back."

What quotes are missing? Could they be vindicative? Interestingly, Saban cuts his backing for Harman by more than half — from $2,100 to $1,000 – between the 2006 and 2008 election cycles. And I don’t think it’s because he was hurting — financially, that is. It also seems notable that nothing in the reporting — in 2006 or now — suggests that Harman actually made any calls to Justice.

* The presumption that Harman, the ranking Democrat on intel in the summer or fall of 2005 (Stein says its five months after May, when he says Weissman and Rosen were fired, although that was March; the original October 2006 Time Magazine story places it in the middle of 2005) was preoccupied with finally assuming the chairmanship of the House intel committee when the Democrats would retake Congress. The reporting in October 2006 (when it was clear that the Democrats were indeed on the verge of a sweep) implies that; CQ says it outright in its story this week. But in the summer-fall of 2005, a Democratic victory was anything but certain. I don’t recall confident predictions about a Democratic sweep until March 2006 at the earliest.

* 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."

* There seems to be doubt among even the spooks about whether the allegations amounted to a crime. CQ quotes its sources as saying she had "committed a ‘completed crime,’ a legal term meaning that there was evidence that she had attempted to complete it." Then, toward the end of the story, CQ quotes a "recently retired longtime national security official who was closely involved in the AIPAC investigation" as saying it was "not legal corruption necessarily, but ethical corruption."

Okay, those were the why-it-smells, now for the why-nows:

* With the Rosen-Weissman case finally set for trial in June, the government’s case suffered two major blows in recent months: An appeals court upheld trial judge T.S. Ellis’ tough constitutional restrictions on making their case, and Ellis upheld the right of the defense to call William Leonard – the man who ran classification policy for the government from 2002-2007 — to testify that the case is classic intelligence community overreach. The Obama administration is sweeping Bush era secrecy policies clean and is probably wondering how it inherited this likely fiasco of a case.

On the other hand, as the story’s former official who was involved in the AIPAC case puts it, it "was years in the making." I won’t beat around the bush: The increasingly likelihood of a loss has got to hurt. One or two more puzzle pieces in place and this rehash could add up to an 11th hour attempt to a) taint the jury pool, b) spook a Democratic administration ("We can make your people hurt") or c) both.

* As I noted in my 2006 report on this (ignore the "November 30 1999," we have an archives glitch), just before the leak of the allegations against her, Harman’s staff had stuck the knife into the GOP, releasing a report suggesting that the committee’s Republican staffers looked the other way while Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) used the committee to steer tens of millions of dollars to benefactors. Goss hired a lot of those staffers in his time heading the committee, and hired Dusty Foggo, who was eventually implicated in the wider bribery scandal, as his number three at the agency. It sounds as if some of the sources in this story are at least Goss friendly, and we can presume there ain’t a lot of love lost between Harman and Goss.

One final thing: A proposed FISA tap on a sitting member of Congress? And an existing tap on an "Israeli agent" who sounds a lot like an American citizen (who else would plausibly pledge to lobby Peolsi?).

Whatever the motivation of his sources, Stein, a longtime pro, correctly makes this — the real news — his lede. Let’s see how other media folllow up.

UPDATE: You’ll see above, I’ve corrected the brief to show that Saban was not identified as the Israeli "agent" in 2006. He was one of several Jewish donors who spoke with Harman and then with Pelosi – and as far as I know the only "Israeli" among them. But as Josh Marshall points out "Israeli agent" does not necessarily describe an Israeli citizen. (This is why I love and appreciate editors and why I desperately miss them when I’m reporting at 2 a.m.)

UPDATE 2: Philip Weiss’ undercover correspondent (I love it) F. E. Felson correctly points out that there was plenty of reporting  that Harman did indeed angle to preserve her slot on the committee.

This is true, and I was among those reporting it. In fairness to Harman, people close to her insisted that the push was not solicited by her; it came from people, they said, who had an interest in keeping her on the committee – not just from the pro-Israel community, I was told, but also in the defense industries. And I should add further that Pelosi did not believe that Harman was not pushing to keep her slot.

And in another "on the one hand, on the other hand" (just to keep things totally murky), I should point out (on the one hand) that the pro-Israel community had absolutely nothing to fear from Pelosi’s proposed favorite, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), who was and is one of the pro-Israel lobby’s stalwarts. And (on the other) that does not mean that folks in the pro-Israel lobby who had a relationship with Harman would not, if only for comfort’s sake, want to keep her in the slot.

Phew.

So now let me clarify: The sources peddling this make the case that the prospect of Harman chairing the committee was a motivating factor. From the CQ story:

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.

This clearly does not make sense – there’s no way that Harman or her alleged interlocutors, in the summer of 2005, would have been that confident of a Democratic victory. But it makes Harman looks worse – and that says something about the motive and reliability of the sources peddling this.

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