Gonzales ‘blocked prosecution of Democrat who helped keep lid on wiretapping story’
By John Byrne
April 20, 2009
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.