Spy Story: Harman, Saban, and AIPAC

Spy Story: Harman, Saban, and AIPAC

The trial on espionage-related charges for two former officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee starts this summer, unless — as the Washington Post has demanded — the Justice Department drops the charges.

Now we know, thanks to Jeff Stein of CQ, that a reported offer from Rep. Jane Harman to intervene in the case on behalf of AIPAC — to “waddle into” it, as she put it — was caught on tape on a court-ordered (and court-sanctioned) wiretap. According to Stein, perhaps Washington’s very best reporter on intelligence, an FBI probe of Harman’s pledge to run interference for AIPAC was dropped on orders from Alberto Gonzalez, President Bush’s attorney general, who wanted Harman’s cooperation to protect the secret (and illegal) domestic surveillance program.

What an ugly story.

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The trial on espionage-related charges for two former officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee starts this summer, unless — as the Washington Post has demanded — the Justice Department drops the charges.

Now we know, thanks to Jeff Stein of CQ, that a reported offer from Rep. Jane Harman to intervene in the case on behalf of AIPAC — to “waddle into” it, as she put it — was caught on tape on a court-ordered (and court-sanctioned) wiretap. According to Stein, perhaps Washington’s very best reporter on intelligence, an FBI probe of Harman’s pledge to run interference for AIPAC was dropped on orders from Alberto Gonzalez, President Bush’s attorney general, who wanted Harman’s cooperation to protect the secret (and illegal) domestic surveillance program.

What an ugly story.

Here’s Stein’s lead:

Rep. Jane Harman , the California Democrat with a longtime involvement in intelligence issues, was overheard on an NSA wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department to reduce espionage-related charges against two officials of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel organization in Washington.

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.”

And that FBI probe? Reports Stein:

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.

Who was Harman talking to when she was caught on tape by the NSA? Stein says she was speaking to a suspected “Israeli agent.” The Jewish Telegraph Agency suggests — as did earlier reports, in 2006, when the story first broke — that the person lobbying Harman to intervene in the AIPAC case was Haim Saban, a top Democratic fundraiser:

Similar reports surfaced in October 2006, just prior to the midterm elections. Those reports named the Israeli “agent” as Haim Saban, the Israeli-American entertainment magnate who is a major donor to the Democratic Party and to AIPAC.

I’ve followed this fairly closely, but I’ve never heard of Saban being referred to an an Israeli “agent.” Certainly, he is obsessed with Israel. If this is true, then there ought to be a full investigation of Harman, Saban, and AIPAC. Saban, incidentally, is the godfather and key funder of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

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