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Deconstructing The Jane Harman Backstory

A colleague asked me why the latest charges against Jane Harman are coming out now, particularly since the bulk of the story was reported in October 2006. The Monday CQ report which re-ignited this case mostly adds secondary details, including direct quotes from a newly-revealed wiretap that captured Harman, plus a claim that she pressured the New York Times against printing its 2005 NSA wiretap expose in return for Bush officials aborting an investigation into her allegedly shady efforts to win the House Intelligence Committee chairmanship. (In essense, Harman has been accused of cutting a shady deal to cover up another shady deal. She has denied most of the specific allegations.)

So, why is the pot boiling again now? The conspiracy theories are swirling. One is that Bush intelligence officials are trying to change the subject. "Is this about taking pressure off the revelations of waterboarding and the memos?" a source asks Foreign Policy's Laura Rozen. I find this one hard to swallow. The torture debate is a titanic story, too big to be drowned out by complicated intrigue involving a congresswoman most Americans have never heard of before. Nor can I find any evidence that Harman was bashing Bush officials in the wake of last week's release of the OLC torture memos (although Harman did file a classified protest over waterboarding with the CIA in 2003, and has since sponsored bills seeking to ban torture).

My colleague says he's also seen speculation that Nancy Pelosi is behind it all. Pelosi reportedly dislikes Harman and may feel that Harman never paid sufficiently for her notoriously strong-arm lobbying for the intelligence committee chair, regardless of whether it involved AIPAC. Moreover, Pelosi is probably feeling uncomfortable this week, given that she was also reportedly present at 2002 national security briefings where the use of waterboarding was detailed--and raised no objection. But this spin is also unlikely. Pelosi wouldn't likely know the new details that gave Stein a fresh story. Nor is this episode helping Hill Democrats fend off GOP attempts to slap the "corruption" label on them via the likes of Jack Murtha, Burris-Blago and Dianne Feinstein. As Politico writes today, Pelosi found herself "on the defensive" over the Harman case at a Tuesday press conference where she had hoped to talk about Earth Day. This isn't fun for her, either. 

More plausible to me is the theory that this is the work of frustrated prosecutors on the AIPAC case. The Justice Department, having lost some key court rulings recently, may now drop its charges against the two former AIPAC employees accused of conspiring to recieve and disclose classified national security information. (Harman allegedly told an Israeli agent she would intervene on behalf of the two if the pro-Israel megadonor Haim Saban would play hardball with Pelosi in support of her 2006 intel committee bid). The LAT's Tim Rutten charges that people upset that "the government's ridiculously overreaching prosecution" is falling apart are now trying to "drag Harman, Pelosi and Saban into this faux scandal." One Harman sympathizer with whom I spoke this week echoed that theory. And the CQ story does quote a "recently retired law enforcement official who was involved in the AIPAC investigation" trashing Harman as corrupt. But with the case going down, why lash out at Harman and not its central figures, namely AIPAC and its ex-employees? Especially given that Harman insists she never intervened in the case and apparently didn't succeed if she did. (One of the accused former AIPAC employees, Steve Rosen, politely declined to discuss the case when I reached him Monday.)

For his part, Jeff Stein, the CQ reporter who re-opened this can of worms, said in an online chat Monday that there's no backstory here. "The fact is, there is no 'timing' to any 'leak,'" Stein said. "No sources 'came forward,' so to speak. I learned about this quite a while ago and was just recently able to turn my full attention to it. Total coincidence." Although I have no reason to distrust Stein, this story doesn't quite ring true, either, and I suspect he's using some cute wordplay to protect people. For instance, maybe Stein had been told in advance that key sources--like that law enforcement official quoted above--were preparing to retire and would be willing to talk once they were out of government. 

Ultimately, I tend to agree the story is overblown. Harman never got the job. Pelosi denies that Saban threatened her, and he never stopped donating to Democrats. There is no evidence the congresswoman intervened in the AIPAC case. That she is a friend of Israel with some hawkish tendencies has never been a secret. And her pressure on the Times not to run the NSA story is fairly consistent with her other positions on intelligence. Whoever is after Jane Harman has certainly ruined her week but--unless another big shoe drops--not her career.

Bonus: The LAT has a nice mini-profile of Saban:

With his place secured among the world's richest men, Saban was free to become a financial superhero to a generation of Democratic office seekers. His motives were always perfectly clear. "Everyone knows that there's no greater passion in Saban's life than the state of Israel and its continued survival," said veteran Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman. "He's very focused. Anyone with billions of dollars and that much passion is a big deal."

Update: Pelosi now says she was briefed about the Harman wiretap "a few years ago." Interesting, but I don't think it changes my assessment. It's still not a story she's keen to be discussing. And if she or someone around her tipped off CQ, why sit on the information for "years" first?

--Michael Crowley