Hill Holds Fire on Harman

House Leaders Quiet on Allegations of Wrongdoing

Posted April 20, 2009 at 6:38pm

House leaders in both parties were publicly mum in response to a story that nonetheless lit up Capitol Hill on Monday, alleging that Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) engaged in a quid pro quo with a suspected Israeli agent to advance her stature in Congress.

That story, which said that Harman tried to quash a federal spy case against two officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in return for help lobbying Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for the gavel of the House Intelligence Committee, was first reported Sunday by Congressional Quarterly. The piece not only targeted Harman, but carried a stinging charge against a top Republican: that then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales stopped a federal probe of Harman’s actions so she could remain a credible ally in the Bush administration’s defense of its warrantless wiretapping program, which was about to be made public by the New York Times.

With damaging allegations against big names in both parties, the story is likely to be a taboo subject on the Hill, Congressional aides and analysts said.

“The whole thing smells, and nobody’s hands are clean,— one aide to a senior Democratic lawmaker said.

Spokesmen for Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) either declined to comment or did not return calls on Monday. And the Republican messaging machine, usually quick to churn out e-mails alerting reporters to every alleged ethical misstep by a Congressional Democrat, stayed silent on the news.

In fact, Harman’s office was singular in going on the record — issuing a more full-throated statement than the short, angry denial the lawmaker offered for the original CQ report, which she called an “outrageous and recycled canard, and having no basis in fact.—

In a follow-up statement Monday, Harman Chief of Staff John Hess charged that the CQ story “recycles three year-old discredited reporting of largely unsourced material to manufacture a scoop’ out of widely known and unremarkable facts — that Congresswoman Jane Harman is and has long been a supporter of AIPAC, and that some members of AIPAC regarded her as well-qualified to chair the House Intelligence Committee following the 2006 elections.—

Harman’s alleged conversation with the suspected Israeli agent was picked up on a National Security Agency wiretap, the CQ story said — a fact that Hess said should be the focus of attention. “If there is anything about this story that should arouse concern, it is that the Bush Administration may have been engaged in electronic surveillance of members of the congressional Intelligence Committees,— he said.

Whether the report would spark bipartisan Congressional outrage over the wiretapping of a lawmaker — a detail complicated by the fact that the NSA appeared to be targeting the other person on the call, an alleged Israeli agent — remains to be seen.

But at least one outside watchdog group sought to keep the focus on Harman. The generally left-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington issued a call for the Justice Department and the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate.

“If Rep. Harman agreed to try to influence an ongoing criminal investigation in return for help securing a committee chairmanship, her conduct not only violates federal law and House rules, but also her oath to uphold the Constitution,— CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said in a statement.

Whether the still-fledgling OCE is inclined to look at allegations laid out in a single story is difficult to say at such an early point in the office’s operations, said Stefan Passantino, an ethics lawyer at McKenna Long & Aldridge. “The jury is still out on how this group intends to operate,— he said.

If the office decides to probe the matter, it could prompt a recusal from OCE Co-Chairman and ex-Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), who plays a prominent role in the report. As then-CIA director, he reportedly signed off on a Justice Department request to wiretap Harman as part of their investigation. And Goss, former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, decided to brief then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and then-Minority Leader Pelosi about the inquiry.

But the report says Gonzales stepped in to stop the investigation before Goss briefed the House leaders.

In the meantime, Members from both sides of the aisle are likely to steer clear, said Norman Ornstein, a Congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Roll Call contributing writer.

“I don’t think anybody wants to touch it,— he said, adding the timing of the CQ story — a week after the NSA took fire for a report that, in an apparently separate incident, it authorized the warrantless wiretapping of another lawmaker — raises questions about the motives of its sources.

Ornstein, who says he knows Harman “very well,— said he would be “very surprised— if the allegations proved true. He nonetheless called them a “big embarrassment— for the veteran Democratic lawmaker.

But just as Congressional Democrats were keeping quiet on the allegations involving Harman, they also were taking a wait-and-see-approach on whether and to what degree the NSA has engaged in the wiretapping of Members of Congress.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said she was aware of the CQ story, but that it was on her agenda to review.

“I haven’t really had a chance to look at it. I need to, I know,— McCaskill said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) said he wasn’t aware of the story, but found it troubling that it might have happened.

“I’ve not heard of that report,— he said. “I would be concerned about it if it were true.—

The lack of a more robust reaction from lawmakers comes in stark contrast to their response to Justice Department’s 2006 raid on the offices of former Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-La.). The decision by the Bush administration to search Jefferson’s Capitol Hill office sparked outrage among Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike. Then-Speaker Hastert led a bipartisan chorus of criticism, arguing the move was a violation of the Constitution’s separation of powers protections.

Such a response could still be forthcoming, if slow to build, said Erik Smith, a former top aide to then-Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.).

“Usually what you see is uncommon bipartisanship when the rights of Congress are questioned by the executive branch,— as in the Jefferson case. “I can’t imagine any Member is terribly happy with the NSA listening to their conversations, no matter what party they’re in.—

Harman used her then-ranking slot on the House Intelligence Committee to build a national profile as a hawkish Democrat. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and through the first several years of the Iraq War, Harman was a frequent guest on Sunday talk shows — a rarity at the time for a party still languishing in the minority. And she used her prominence in 2005 to launch the SECURE U.S. political action committee, which she has tapped over the past two election cycles to distribute $106,000 to Democrats running for office on national security platforms, according to data from CQ MoneyLine.

But long-running tension with Pelosi over differences on national security policy, among other things, blunted Harman’s ascent. Despite a quiet but aggressive campaign for the Intelligence gavel beginning in 2005 — a push that reportedly prompted a short-lived FBI inquiry into Harman’s coordination with AIPAC — Pelosi passed over Harman to grant the chairmanship to Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), then the third-ranking Democrat on the panel.

John Stanton contributed to this report.