Hastert, Negroponte, Hayden knew about Harman call


UPDATE: A little pickup can be a dangerous thing.

In original reporting, picking out from a pool of information, the lede, the main item, the real breaking news can sometimes be excruciating, other times obvious. But however you arrive at your conclusion, you stand by it and protect it like a child.

Then another reporter thinks he sees something else interesting and gives the original reporter credit – but shifts the focus. It seems arrogant.

It becomes even more complicated in blogging, when you presume the reader will click through to the original story and absorb that reporter’s take, and you just want to get your two cents in.

Jeff Stein wrote to say I misinterpreted his points; I think his reporting – that Denny Hastert was mighty ticked at Alberto Gonzales for quashing a briefing on the Jane Harman intercept – is fine, and makes sense as a lede.

But I’m a) also amazed at the number of once powerful folks who knew about this and b) thought it was of interest that Hastert’s people were concerned that the whistleblower was "agitated" enough that the wiretap could become public and that Harman would be unfairly smeared if it did.  Ultimately three whistleblowers (and we can’t know if the Hastert whistleblower was among them) did go public, in Stein’s original story. (I said earlier Hastert had that impression, but a closer reading suggests it was his aides who felt this way; it’s unclear what Hastert himself thinks of Harman or of the whistleblower).

So, I’m rewriting this to get across Jeff’s emphasis (on Hastert’s anger with Gonzales and on the assessment that Negroponte was backing Gonzales up) and making clearer who’s saying what (as in what bits come from which newspapers.)

Jeff Stein at CQ does it again:

*John Negroponte, then the director of national intelligence, was aware of Venice, Calif. Democrat U.S. Rep. Jane Harman’s alleged 2004-2005-2006* wiretapped exchange with an "Israeli agent" about possibly using her influence to seek leniency in the classified information case against two former AIPAC staffers. Not only that, he allegedly helped quash the case by keeping CIA director Porter Goss (who apparently initiated the case against Harman, according to a New York Times story last week) from informing the U.S. House of Representatives leadership.

*Nonetheless, a whistleblower reached out to then-House speaker Dennis Hastert, and other whistleblowers reached out to minority leader Nancy Pelosi. (Pelosi acknowledged such an outreach last week, following yet another Stein scoop – he broke this story and has led the field in its revelations.) Hastert, who also informed Pelosi about the wiretap, asked for an explanation from then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who reportedly was behind the decision to quash the investigation.

Stein reports that Hastert was "incensed" with Gonzales’ failure to notify congressional leaders that a lawmaker was under investigation in a national security case, per a decades old custom:

“The whistleblower came forward because an important protocol was being ignored whereby the congressional leadership is notified of such intercepts,” Hastert said [in an email to CQ]. “Specifically, I was told that the whistleblower indicated that the CIA director was being blocked from briefing the leadership.”

Scott Palmer, Hastert’s former chief of staff, said the whistleblower’s account that Negroponte was blocking the report seemed credible:

“Normally the briefing would have come from the CIA, but the CIA was now controlled by the DNI,” Palmer said. “So the whistleblower’s concern that the DNI was blocking the briefing seemed credible. But we never did know who precisely who was stopping it.”

*Michael Hayden, Goss’ director successor as CIA director, also knew about the wiretap, knowledge which didn’t stop him from awarding her for her service to the intelligence community. (Harman had been senior Democratic member on the House intelligence committee; allegedly, the "Israeli agent" promised to pull political levers to keep her in that job.)

What’s interesting is the dog that wouldn’t bark, Occam’s Razor, choose your cliche for "Nu?" aspect of all this. Gonzales has variously been reported to have quashed the protocol of informing the House leadership (and eventually, the entire case) because a) he needed Harman in place as the most senior Democrat who backed the Bush administration’s expanded eavesdropping program (as CQ has reported, followed by the New York Times) or b) He didn’t want to forewarn Harman that she was under investigation before she was interviewed by FBI agents, according to someone close to Gonzales who spoke to the  Times.

But according Palmer, Gonzales had another, plainer, reason for not pursuing the case: There was no "there" there. Harman hadn’t committed a crime, according to what Gonzales relayed to Hastert’s office. Hastert’s aides appear to have found that credible – and Palmer conveys an impression of the unnamed whistleblower as slightly unhinged:

Weeks passed with no response from Gonzales. Finally, Hastert’s staff learned they would not be getting a briefing.

“Basically, they told us, ‘There’s really nothing here that would warrant notifying the leadership, we’re not going to come and brief you,’” Palmer said.

At that point, Hastert’s aides grew concerned that the whistleblower “was becoming agitated” and that the existence of the wiretap might surface, which would have the twin effect of exposing a highly classified operation and unfairly “smearing” Harman as a foreign agent herself.

“We did not have any reason to believe that Harman was a security risk,” Palmer said. “We knew her to be a highly respected member of Congress.”

That’s when Hastert decided to inform Pelosi (who apparently already had been informed by whistleblowers):

“When it became clear that we would not get a briefing, and since the individual in question was a member of the Democratic caucus,” Hastert said, “I then instructed my staff in early October 2006 to tell Leader Pelosi, through her staff, what the whistleblower had provided to us so that she would at least have some information and would be able to pursue it further should she decide to do so.”

*(reports of when this occurred have varied between CQ, the New York Times and the Washington Post)

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