Are Members of Congress (and Maybe Even the President) Being Blackmailed?
by Dave Lindorff
For some time now, many Americans have wondered how Congress, the elected body that the nation’s Founding Fathers saw as the bulwark of liberty, could have been so thoroughly unwilling to, or incapable of challenging the dictatorial power-grabs and the eight-year Constitution wrecking campaign of the Bush/Cheney administration.
There has been speculation on both the far left and the far right, and even among some in the apolitical, cynical middle of the political spectrum, that somehow the Bush/Cheney administration must have been blackmailing at least the key members of the Congressional leadership, most likely through the use of electronic monitoring by the National Security Agency (NSA).
I’ll admit that I considered the idea of blackmail a bit far out. But now suddenly there is at least some evidence that such seemingly wild speculation may not have been off the mark, with reports that the NSA was indeed monitoring Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), and that the Bush Administration used the evidence it had obtained of her improper conversations with and promises to assist agents of the Israeli government and its lobby here in the US, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), to blackmail her into supporting the NSA’s warrantless spying program–the very kind of spying that led to her being caught on tape plotting with an agent of a foreign power.
At the time of the taping of Harman’s incriminating phone conversations, the administration was trying desperately (and ultimately successfully) to get the New York Times to hold off on publishing a shocking investigative report by journalist James Risen about a massive campaign of warrantless tapping of Americans’ phone and internet communications.
According to a report by Jeff Stein, published in the latest issue of Congressional Quarterly, the NSA in 2006 recorded Rep. Harman negotiating with an alleged Israeli agent about helping Israel win a reduction in the espionage charges filed by the US in 2005 against two members of the AIPAC lobby accused of providing US intelligence information to the Israeli government (the case against AIPAC’s Stephen Rosen and Keith Weissman is still waiting to go to trial). According to the transcript, a copy of which was obtained by CQ, the Israeli agent offered to have AIPAC lobby, and more specifically to have a it arrange for a wealthy Jewish pro-Israel donor in California donate money to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, in order to get her, once she became House Speaker, to name Harman as chair of the House Intelligence Committee. At the end of the phone conversation, Rep. Harman, who offered to help, was heard to say, “This conversation doesn’t exist.”
According to reports in CQ and in the New York Times, which ran a story on the scandal as its lead news item on Tuesday, then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales subsequently intervened with the FBI to prevent any prosecution of Harman, a key member of Congress on whom the administration was relying to help it persuade the Times to withhold its NSA wiretapping exposé until after the 2006 election. In the event, Rep. Harman did later make calls to a Times, editor, the paper did hold its story until after the election, and Harman later was a leading backer of the administration’s controversial (and, according to a federal district judge, illegal) NSA spying program.
There are several serious issues here. One is the extraordinary glimpse it offers into the extent to which Israel has penetrated the centers of power in Washington. It is illegal for foreign governments to directly lobby and to offer to arrange financial contributions for members of the US government, but here, clearly, Israeli agents were doing just that. The role of AIPAC as a front for the Israeli government in Washington, as exposed here, is simply stomach-turning, and should make it a toxic organization to politicians. Instead, they flock enmasse to its annual meetings, as President Obama did almost immediately upon winning the November election, and a large proportion of both houses from both parties happily accept its campaign largesse.
A second, even bigger, issue is the NSA’s spying activities themselves. According to CQ, the particular wiretap that caught Rep. Harman inflagrante with an Israeli agent was a court-approved tap–part of an investigation into Israeli government spying activities. But even if this is true–and at this point, we’re relying on what the government is telling us about it–it shows how dangerous the broader unwarranted monitoring program of the NSA has been, and remains. Back in 1978, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act FISA) in direct response to the disclosure during the Watergate hearings and subsequent investigations that the Nixon Administration had been using the NSA to conduct illegal monitoring of the communications of anti-war activists, and of members of Congress. To prevent such police-state outrages in the future, Congress passed the FISA legislation, establishing a secret court staffed by a panel of top-security-cleared federal judges, whose sole responsibility was to consider and grant requests from the NSA for warrants to conduct secret electronic surveillance within the US or involving American citizens abroad.
President Bush used the pretext of the 9-11 attacks to secretly order the NSA to begin a massive compaign of surveillance without going through the FISA Court for warrants, even secretly soliciting the cooperation of the nation’s several telecom companies in splicing in routers at their switching hubs to make it possible to monitor all conversations moving across the wires and the internet. It seemed to some observers, myself included, that the only reason the administration could have had for bypassing the FISA court (which over 30 years of operation has been incredibly accommodating of government spying requests) was that it was planning to engage in spying that would outrage the public and the Congress and even the FISA judges. It also seemed likely, given the Bush/Cheney administration’s public stance that everyone was either “with us or against us,” and that critics of the administration’s “War on Terror” or of its plans to invade Iraq, were “unpatriotic” or “soft on terror,” that congressional opponents of the administration would be obvious–and indeed irresistible–targets of that surveillance.
Now that we have seen proof that the administration was not above using its NSA-acquired knowledge to pressure a member of Congress, it becomes absolutely essential that Congress and the Justice Department investigate to see whether other members of Congress were also victims of agency spying, and whether others besides Rep. Harmon were similarly extorted or otherwise compromised.
The American public can, at this point, have zero confidence in the integrity of the Congress or of their own representatives, knowing that politicians and government officials may be acting not in the public interest but rather under duress in the interest of those who control the National Security Agency. We can have zero confidence either in the integrity of the president, who likewise may well have been compromised by NSA surveillance conducted on him before he became president.
The only possible position for the public to adopt as of today is to be suspicious of any politician who opposes a full and public investigation into the NSA’s seven-year-long campaign of sweeping, warrantless electronic eavesdropping, since opposition to such an investigation, in the wake of the Harman episode, could well be an indication that the political figure in question is afraid she or he has been monitored, or worse, that she or he has been threatened by those who have the records. Every citizen concerned about the fate of American democracy should demand that his or her senators and representative promptly call for such a public probe.
It is no longer a wild idea at all to imagine that our Congress has been reduced to the status of a Potemkin legislature because of real or imagined spying by the NSA.
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006). His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net
Gonzales ‘blocked prosecution of Democrat who helped keep lid on wiretapping story’
By John Byrne
April 20, 2009
Update at bottom: NYT editor denies report
A powerful California congresswoman was allegedly caught by an NSA wiretap in 2005 pledging to intervene in an espionage case involving Israeli lobbyists, Congressional Quarterly’s Jeff Stein revealed Sunday.
Quoting former senior Bush Administration officials, the article also alleges that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales conspired to drop criminal action against the then-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Jane Harman (D-CA), because he needed her help when a firestorm of criticism erupted in December 2005 after the New York Times published details about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program.
According to two officials privy to the events, Gonzales said he “needed Jane” to help support the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, which was about to be exposed by the New York Times.
Harman, he told Goss, had helped persuade the newspaper to hold the wiretap story before, on the eve of the 2004 elections. And although it was too late to stop the Times from publishing now, she could be counted on again to help defend the program.
He was right.
On Dec. 21, 2005, in the midst of a firestorm of criticism about the wiretaps, Harman issued a statement defending the operation and slamming the Times, saying, “I believe it essential to U.S. national security, and that its disclosure has damaged critical intelligence capabilities.”
According to a purported NSA transcript of the call between Harman and a suspected Israeli agent — which the article says was tapped legally under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and not part of the warrantless wiretapping program itself — Harman “was recorded saying she would “waddle into” the AIPAC case “if you think it’ll make a difference.”
“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,” Stein added.
Harman allegedly hung up after saying, “This conversation doesn’t exist.”
Harman was not chosen to lead Intelligence. Instead, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tapped Rep. Silvestre Reyes.
The AIPAC case involved two lobbyists — Keith Weissman and Steven Rosen — who were charged with trying to obtain classified reports on US policy and sharing them with reporters and foreign diplomats.
A Harman spokesman vehemently denied the allegations.
“These claims are an outrageous and recycled canard, and have no basis in fact,” Harman said in a statement to CQ. “I never engaged in any such activity. Those who are peddling these false accusations should be ashamed of themselves.”
In 2006, Time revealed that the FBI was investigating Harman for supposedly trying to intervene in the AIPAC case. Later reports indicated, however, that the FBI had dropped the case for “lack of evidence.”
A source “with first-hand knowledge” of the taps told Stein the “no evidence” line was “bullshit.”
“I read those transcripts,” the source is quoted as saying.
However, Ron Kampeas, the Washington, DC bureau chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, charges that “the Harman leaks smell to high heaven.” He suggests that the leaking of the story now may have more to do with the upcoming trial of the two former AIPAC lobbyists — and the weakness of the case against them — than with any past events.
Kampeas notes in particular that “the selected quotes from the alleged transcript do not necessarily add up to a quid pro quo.” He points out that the wiretapped conversation between Harman and the Israeli agent “took place in the summer or fall of 2005? and supposedly involved a promise to have Nancy Pelosi appoint Harman as chair of the Intel Committee if the Democrats took control of the House following the 2006 elections. However, those elections were then well over a year away, and Democratic victory was by no means assured.
Greg Sargent’s The Plum Line blog carries denials from NY Times editor Bill Keller that “Harmanhad any role in persuading him to hold its big warrantless wiretapping expose until after the 2004 elections, a controversial decision that may have altered the election’s outcome and changed history.”
“Ms. Harman did not influence my decision,” Keller stated in a quote relayed to Sargent by Times spokesperson Catherine Mathis. “I don’t recall that she even spoke to me.”
Sargent writes, “If this is right, this deals the story a blow. CQ reports that Harman’s alleged efforts to get the story spiked in 2004 was a key rationale for one of the story’s most explosive charges: That Gonzales knew he could count on Harman’s support for warrantless wiretapping in 2005, and hence got a separate FBI probe against Harman dropped.”
Keller’s December 16, 2005 statement on why the paper held back the wiretaps story only mentioned “the Administration” and “[o]fficials.”
“A year ago, when this information first became known to Times reporters, the Administration argued strongly that writing about this eavesdropping program would give terrorists clues about the vulnerability of their communications and would deprive the government of an effective tool for the protection of the country’s security.
“Officials also assured senior editors of The Times that a variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone involved that the program raised no legal questions.
“As we have done before in rare instances when faced with a convincing national security argument, we agreed not to publish at that time.
Bombshell: Rep. Jane Harman Caught on Tape Agreeing to Lobby for Alleged AIPAC/Israel Spies?
by Jeremy Scahill, Rebel Reports
April 20, 2009
This is a huge story: Representative Jane Harman, a hawkish, influential “Blue Dog”‘ Democrat “was overheard on an NSA wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department reduce espionage-related charges against two officials of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel organization in Washington,”‘ according to a report from CQ Politics:
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.”‘
The case, known as the AIPAC espionage scandal centers around allegations that at least two AIPAC staff members passed sensitive US intelligence on Iran, provided by Pentagon official Lawrence Franklin, to Israel. In early 2006, Franklin pled guilty to espionage-related charges and was sentenced to 13 years in prison. The case against two indicted AIPAC staffers, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, is ongoing.
Allegations that Harman intervened in this case in an effort to win the spot as chair of the Intelligence Committee have been widespread since 2006, but an FBI investigation into Harman was dropped for “lack of evidence.”‘ As CQ Politics reports:
What is new is that Harman is said to have been picked up on a court-approved NSA tap directed at alleged Israel covert action operations in Washington.
And that, contrary to reports that the Harman investigation was dropped for “lack of evidence,”‘ it was Alberto R. Gonzales, President Bush’s top counsel and then attorney general, who intervened to stop the Harman probe.
Why? Because, according to three top former national security officials, Gonzales wanted Harman to be able to help defend the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, which was about break in The New York Times and engulf the White House.
When Justice Department officials reviewed the transcript of the wiretaps on Rep. Harman, its attorneys determined she had committed a “completed crime,”‘ which, according to CQ Politics is “a legal term meaning that there was evidence that she had attempted to complete it.”‘ The Justice Department attorneys wanted to open a case on her, but they needed the green light from top intel officials to confirm it rightly constituted a national security investigation. Porter Goss, who was then the CIA director reportedly approved the investigation and was preparing to notify then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and House Speaker Dennis Hastert and, through them, Harman herself:
But that’s when, according to knowledgeable officials, Attorney General Gonzales intervened.
According to two officials privy to the events, Gonzales said he “needed Jane”‘ to help support the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, which was about to be exposed by the New York Times.
Harman, he told Goss, had helped persuade the newspaper to hold the wiretap story before, on the eve of the 2004 elections. And although it was too late to stop the Times from publishing now, she could be counted on again to help defend the program
He was right.
On Dec. 21, 2005, in the midst of a firestorm of criticism about the wiretaps, Harman issued a statement defending the operation and slamming the Times, saying, “I believe it essential to U.S. national security, and that its disclosure has damaged critical intelligence capabilities.”‘
Pelosi and Hastert never did get the briefing.
And thanks to grateful Bush administration officials, the investigation of Harman was effectively dead.
On his Salon blog today Glenn Greenwald points out:
Jane Harman, in the wake of the NSA scandal, became probably the most crucial defender of the Bush warrantless eavesdropping program, using her status as “the ranking Democratic on the House intelligence committee”‘ to repeatedly praise the NSA program as “essential to U.S. national security”‘ and “both necessary and legal.”‘ She even went on Meet the Press to defend the program along with GOP Sen. Pat Roberts and Rep. Pete Hoekstra, and she even strongly suggested that the whistleblowers who exposed the lawbreaking and perhaps even the New York Times (but not Bush officials) should be criminally investigated, saying she “deplored the leak,”‘ that “it is tragic that a lot of our capability is now across the pages of the newspapers,”‘ and that the whistleblowers were “despicable.”‘ And Eric Lichtblau himself described how Harman, in 2004, attempted very aggressively to convince him not to write about the NSA program.
There may be some who attempt to portray Harman as a victim of blackmail by Gonzales (and the wiretapping of members of Congress–and other Americans– should be thoroughly investigated) but Harman is a right wing Democrat who was often in sync with the heinous policies of the Bush administration. Over at TalkingPointsMemo, Josh Marshall raises some interesting issues on this story, particularly relating to the wiretap itself:
Among the many questions the story raises are some that Harman should probably answer, but not all. High on my list would be finding out more about the circumstances under which a member of Congress ended up having her phone conversations recorded by the NSA. The article suggests it was a by-the-books wiretap — part of a highly-classified probe of Israeli agents in the US, which led to the indictments of two AIPAC employees — and not one of the ‘warrantless’ ones. But we’ve seen so much funny business on that front that I’m not sure that’s enough information.
In a prepared statement, Harman said: “These claims are an outrageous and recycled canard, and have no basis in fact… I never engaged in any such activity. Those who are peddling these false accusations should be ashamed of themselves.”