Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) on Tuesday barreled into the second day of her fledgling scandal — touched off by reports of a wiretapped conversation she had in 2005 with a suspected Israeli agent — by trying to turn the tables on government eavesdroppers.
The veteran California lawmaker reportedly agreed on that phone call to seek leniency for two accused spies in return for help in lobbying Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for the House Intelligence Committee gavel. But Harman fought back Tuesday with a media blitz, aggressively denying charges she did anything inappropriate and calling on the Justice Department to probe the wiretap and the leak behind the news accounts.
She even got some measured backup from Pelosi, a sometimes personal foe. Pelosi threw cold water on a New York Times report that Haim Saban — a wealthy Democratic donor and Harman’s reported counterpart on a wiretapped call setting up the deal — threatened Pelosi with withheld campaign contributions until Harman got the top Intelligence Committee post.
“Everybody knows I don’t respond to threats, so it wouldn’t be meaningful,— Pelosi said. “But it isn’t true, no.—
Senate Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D) went further in her defense of her home-state colleague, joining Harman’s call for the Justice Department to release the wiretaps.
“I believe she has the highest integrity that she would never do anything to compromise our government,— she said.
Harman made her case in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, followed by a pair of cable news appearances. She used all three forums to categorically deny that she made any effort to intervene with the George W. Bush administration on behalf of two officials with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee charged with espionage. In the letter, Harman said she was “outraged— to learn of the wiretapping and called on Holder to release the unredacted transcripts and open an investigation into the possible wiretapping of other lawmakers.
“I think this is a gross abuse of power,— she said in a midday appearance on MSNBC. “This isn’t about me, this is about any Member of Congress. And by the way, Members of Congress have been calling my office this morning, asking whether, perhaps, in their own conversations with advocacy groups … maybe they were inadvertently picked up on some kind of an eavesdrop, with or without a warrant.—
In a later appearance on CNN, Harman again said she wants to “make sure that Members of Congress are not routinely wiretapped without their knowledge.—
The New York Times reported last week that the National Security Agency has intercepted e-mails and private phone calls in a manner that broached legal limits that Congress placed on those activities last year. As part of that effort, and in an episode apparently separate from Harman’s, the agency attempted to wiretap a Member of Congress on an overseas trip, the report said.
But outside of Pelosi and Feinstein, most lawmakers appeared reluctant to make a public show of solidarity with Harman. Pelosi defended Harman as a “very valued Member of this Congress,— but said she did not know enough about the reported call with an alleged Israeli spy to “speak with authority— about it. Most Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee — including Chairman John Conyers (Mich.) — did not respond to requests for comment about whether they would support Harman’s push for a Justice Department review of wiretaps of lawmakers.
A spokesman for Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, said, “We have no plans to get involved.—
Likewise for most members of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the Justice Department. And ditto for Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who ducked a question about the matter on Tuesday.
The response from key House and Senate lawmakers was somewhat noteworthy given the bipartisan reaction to the 2006 Justice Department raid on the offices of former Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.). Members in both parties cried foul over what they then viewed as a violation of the separation of powers protections.
Outside advocates of stricter surveillance regulations hope that will change. With portions of the USA PATRIOT Act expiring at the end of the year, they are eyeing the reauthorization as a vehicle to reining in some provisions of the wiretapping law enacted last year.
Caroline Fredrickson, a top lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Harman episode could bring home for lawmakers that “wiretapping affects people — it has real consequences.—
Jennifer Bendery, Emily Pierce and John Stanton contributed to this report.