Is Jane Harman a stooge for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)? Now that the controversy over Charles Freeman's abortive nomination to become head of the National Intelligence Council has faded away, a new brouhaha over the California representative and her ties to AIPAC has erupted in the blogosphere. The allegation, which first surfaced in 2006 and has now been expanded by Jeff Stein in Congressional Quarterly, is that in mid-2005 Harman engaged in a quid pro quo with AIPAC as well as the Bush administration.
Harman supposedly promised to offer her assistance to prompt the Justice Department to look more leniently upon the espionage charges against two AIPAC officials named Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman. Harman's reason? She wanted AIPAC's all-out support for her bid to become head of the House Intelligence Committee should the Democrats win back the House in 2006, which they did. At that time, Harman was the ranking minority member on the committee.
Stein's coup is to deliver the news that Harman was overheard on a National Security Administration wiretap stating to a "suspected Israeli agent" (entrepreneur Haim Saban has been fingered by numerous commentators as the alleged "agent") that she would "waddle into" the case "if you think it'll make a difference." The phone call ended with Harman reportedly saying, "This conversation doesn't exist." He also states that then-attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales quashed the alleged original probe of Harman in the hopes that she would defend the Bush administration's warrantless-wiretap program.
Andrew Sullivan comments, "A suspected Israeli agent able to deliver AIPAC and AIPAC able to deliver Pelosi? Take it away, professor [sic] Walt!" Well, Stephen Walt doesn't seem to have commented (at least not yet) or waddled into the controversy, but plenty of others have, including Glenn Greenwald, Philip Weiss, Steve Clemons, Josh Marshall, and Matt Yglesias. If true, this story would be as big as Whittaker Chambers facing off against Alger Hiss, confirmation that Israeli influence knows no bounds and is able to suborn a prominent congressman.
But is it? Harman denies the charge, calling it a "recycled canard" with "no basis in fact." The accusers, she says, "should be ashamed of themselves"-whoever they may be. (Stein refers to them as "former national security officials," which suggests the FBI members who conducted the original probe of Harman.) The fact is that Harman never did become chair of the intelligence committee. To her intense dismay, Congressman Silvestre Reyes did. Numerous Democrats see Harman as having been too cozy with the Bush administration. She's basically a liberal hawk on foreign policy.
The real story here may be why former officials are targeting Harman now. Are they frustrated that the two former AIPAC officials, Rosen and Weissman, who were charged under the recondite provisions of the 1917 Espionage Act, seem unlikely to see any prison time because the court case against them is going nowhere? Is this an underhanded way of settling scores with the Bush administration, which supposedly stifled the original probe of Harman, and of meting out rough justice by tarring the California Democrat?
My own view all along has been that Rosen and Weissman are unfairly being hung out to dry by the FBI, which appears to have gone on some kind of a crusade against AIPAC. It would truly be ironic, though, if Harman, rather than Rosen and Weissman, engaged in a form of influence peddling. This would be the old story of the cover-up being worse than the crime. If the charges are fallacious, though, the attack on Harman's reputation by several "former national security officials" would be a form of character assassination that can only raise even more questions about the FBI's pursuit of Israeli influence in Washington, DC.
At this point, the most that can be said about the Harman affair is that it has sent Klaxons clanging across Washington. The troops have reemerged for battle on both sides. For now, the welter of charges and countercharges simply further attest to the virulence of the larger debate about Israel's prominence in American foreign policy. It's hard to see where this will go since the wiretaps are unlikely to be made public. It could well be that Jane Harman was been smeared. But if the allegations aired in the CQ article are true, it would undeniably represent a stunning reversal from the recent Freeman controversy.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.