In the wake of reports last week that Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) got caught in a politically embarrassing conversation by a government wiretap, House Democratic leaders are quietly reaching out to the Justice Department to develop new protocols for law enforcement involving Members of Congress.
The outreach seeks to revive and expand talks that never got off the ground with the Bush administration last year. Those were aimed at developing guidelines for searches of Congressional offices, after the FBIs May 2006 raid of then-Rep. William Jeffersons (D-La.) Capitol Hill office touched off bipartisan outrage.
House General Counsel Irv Nathan on Monday sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder saying House leaders have urged me to restart negotiations over hopefully rare searches and electronic surveillance involving Members of Congress.
Reports surfaced last week that Harman was picked up by government eavesdroppers in 2005 telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would seek leniency for two accused spies in return for their help in lobbying Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for the top slot on the House Intelligence Committee.
Harman mounted a vigorous counteroffensive, denying the allegations and trying to marshal protected Congressional rights to her defense. She sent Holder a letter calling the apparent wiretap and its leak to the press an outrage and an abuse of power and called on him to release an unedited transcript of the wiretap and to investigate possible wiretapping of other lawmakers.
Appearing on CNN last week, Harman said her phone is ringing off the hook in my office from worried Members who are asking whether I think it could have happened to them.
Nathans letter does not mention Harman by name but makes clear reference to her reported situation, in which eavesdroppers were apparently targeting the other person on the call and stumbled into ensnaring her. These protocols need to deal with physical searches of premises, with situations where a Member may be a target of an intercept and also with situations where the subject of the wiretap is a non-Congressional third party and Members are not specifically targeted for taping, it reads.
Lawmakers have been publicly quiet in the wake of the Harman news, in stark contrast to the bipartisan outpouring of anger after the Jefferson raid, when then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) led a chorus of lawmakers blasting the move as a violation of the Constitutions separation of powers protections.
But House Democratic aides said lawmakers were nevertheless nervous about the potential for abuses by law enforcement officials, whom some suspect to be sitting on other so-far-undisclosed wiretapped conversations of Members. Pelosi, in a closed-door briefing of her whip team on Thursday, told her lieutenants that she will fight to uphold the constitutional protections of the legislative branch, noting that Nathan was on the case, according to sources in the room.
Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said Nathans letter to Holder builds on an ongoing process of discussions and other correspondence between the legislative and executive branches to establish clear protocols with respect to searches and wiretaps. Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), declined to comment.
Lawmakers would enter refreshed talks with the administration having won an important victory in the Jefferson case. An appeals court last year ruled that the Jefferson raid was unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court refused a Justice Department request to reconsider that ruling.
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.