Jane Harman controversy – unwelcome backdrop for AIPAC policy conference

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

James Besser in Washington

With its annual policy conference approaching,  the last thing AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, needed was a lot of new publicity about the Espionage Act case involving two former employees.

Well, that’s what it’s getting, thanks to a controversial and bizarre story in CQ Politics – a publication of the respected Congressional Quarterly.

Correspondent Jeff Stein reported that Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), a prominent Jewish lawmaker who has focused much of her congressional career on defense and intelligence matters, “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.”

Those former AIPAC staffers, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, are defendants in an oft-postponed trial; now, it is scheduled for June.

According to CQ, what Harman was supposed to get in return was help in winning  appointment as chair of the House Intelligence Committee.

Harman has angrily denied it,  the feds aren’t talking and questions abound about the charges, but the report was splashed across the blogosphere all day yesterday, many of the posts emphasizing the AIPAC connection even though that was not the main thrust of the story – not exactly the kind of publicity AIPAC wants only two weeks before its big annual meeting.

What does it all mean? JTA’s Ron Kampeas, who is following the Rosen and Weissman case closer than anybody, has an interesting take on.”Why the Harman leaks smell to high heaven.”

Laura Rozen, blogging in Foreign Policy, suggested that the leaks that triggered the CQ story may have been the result of CIA fury at Harman for publicly objecting to the use of harsh interrogation techniques on foreign detainees.

Regardless of how it turns out, the new report, an elaboration of charges that first appeared in 2006,  will add to the pre-conference chatter about the May 3-5 AIPAC gathering in Washington; among other things,  Harman appears on the preliminary schedule as a panelist for a session on “An Insider’s Look at the Middle East.

Another source of chatter:  uncertainty about exactly who will represent the new Israeli government at the conference. There are widespread reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, once assumed to be an AIPAC keynoter, will not be coming – either because he couldn’t wrangle an invitation to sit down with President Obama ( according to some on the left) or because he wanted to get his peace process ducks in a row before a late May meeting in Washington (according to reports in the Israeli press).

It is also unclear who will represent an administration that may be getting ready for a major peace push that could lead to friction with the new Israeli government – and, therefore, with the pro-Israel lobby group.

Current betting is that it will be Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but there hasn’t been a peep from AIPAC, and their press folks haven’t responded to a request for an update.

Anti-AIPAC bloggers are filling the Web with gleeful predictions the policy conference will reveal a pro-Israel lobby on the ropes. It should be noted that such predictions precede almost every AIPAC gathering – and each year’s conference is better attended than the last, with just as many political bigwigs. So don’t take any bets that this year’s will be any different.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.