For some time now, many Americans have wondered how Congress, the elected body that the nation’s Founding Fathers saw as the bulwark of liberty, could have been so thoroughly unwilling to, or incapable of challenging the dictatorial power-grabs and the eight-year Constitution wrecking campaign of the Bush/Cheney administration.
There has been speculation on both the far left and the far right, and even among some in the apolitical, cynical middle of the political spectrum, that somehow the Bush/Cheney administration must have been blackmailing at least the key members of the Congressional leadership, most likely through the use of electronic monitoring by the National Security Agency (NSA).
I’ll admit that (even though we know J Edgar Hoover did keep a dirt file on members of Congress to help him support his budget allocation each year) I always considered the idea of White House blackmail a bit far out. But now suddenly there is at least some evidence that such seemingly wild speculation may not have been off the mark, with reports that the NSA was indeed monitoring Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), and that the Bush Administration used the evidence it had obtained of her improper conversations with and promises to assist agents of the Israeli government and its lobby here in the US, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), to blackmail her into supporting the NSA’s warrantless spying program—the very kind of spying that led to her being caught on tape plotting with an agent of a foreign power.
At the time of the taping of Harman’s incriminating phone conversations, the administration was trying desperately (and ultimately successfully) to get the New York Times to hold off on publishing a shocking investigative report by journalist James Risen about a massive campaign of warrantless tapping of Americans’ phone and internet communications.
According to a report by Jeff Stein, published in the latest issue of Congressional Quarterly, the NSA in 2006 recorded Rep. Harman negotiating with an alleged Israeli agent about helping Israel win a reduction in the espionage charges filed by the US in 2005 against two members of the AIPAC lobby accused of providing US intelligence information to the Israeli government (the case against AIPAC’s Stephen Rosen and Keith Weissman is still waiting to go to trial). According to the transcript, a copy of which was obtained by CQ, the Israeli agent offered to have AIPAC lobby, and more specifically to have a it arrange for a wealthy Jewish pro-Israel donor in California donate money to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, in order to get her, once she became House Speaker, to name Harman as chair of the House Intelligence Committee. At the end of the phone conversation, Rep. Harman, who offered to help, was heard to say, “This conversation doesn’t exist.”
According to reports in CQ and in the New York Times, which ran a story on the scandal as its lead news item on Tuesday, then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales subsequently intervened with the FBI to prevent any prosecution of Harman, a key member of Congress on whom the administration was relying to help it persuade the Times to withhold its NSA wiretapping exposé until after the 2006 election. In the event, Rep. Harman did later make calls to a Times editor, the paper did hold its story until after the election, and Harman later was a leading backer of the administration’s controversial (and illegal) NSA spying program. (Harman never did get the chair of the Intel Committee, though she did make a run at it. It is possible that the reason she didn’t get the position was that, as Pelosi now admits, she was informed early on by the NSA of the tap it had done on Harman.)
There are several serious issues here. One is the extraordinary glimpse it offers into the extent to which Israel has penetrated the centers of power in Washington. It is illegal for foreign governments to directly lobby and to offer to arrange financial contributions for members of the US government, but here, clearly, Israeli agents were doing just that. The role of AIPAC as a front for the Israeli government in Washington, as exposed here, is simply stomach-turning, and should make it a toxic organization to politicians. Instead, they flock enmasse to its annual meetings, as President Obama did almost immediately upon winning the November election, and a large proportion of both houses from both parties happily accept its campaign largesse.
A second, even bigger, issue is the NSA’s spying activities themselves. According to CQ, the particular wiretap that caught Rep. Harman inflagrante with an Israeli agent was a court-approved tap—part of an investigation into Israeli government spying activities. But even if this is true—and at this point, we’re relying on what the government is telling us about it—it shows how dangerous the broader unwarranted monitoring program of the NSA has been, and remains. Back in 1978, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in direct response to the disclosure during the Watergate hearings and subsequent investigations that the Nixon Administration had been using the NSA to conduct illegal monitoring of the communications of anti-war activists, and of members of Congress. To prevent such police-state outrages in the future, Congress passed the FISA legislation, establishing a secret court staffed by a panel of top-security-cleared federal judges, whose sole responsibility was to consider and grant requests from the NSA for warrants to conduct secret electronic surveillance within the US or involving American citizens abroad.
President Bush used the pretext of the 9-11 attacks to secretly order the NSA to begin a massive compaign of surveillance without going through the FISA Court for warrants, even secretly soliciting the cooperation of the nation’s several telecom companies in splicing in routers at their switching hubs to make it possible to monitor all conversations moving across the wires and the internet. It seemed to some observers, myself included, that the only reason the administration could have had for bypassing the FISA court (which over 30 years of operation has been incredibly accommodating of government spying requests) was that it was planning to engage in spying that would outrage the public and the Congress and even the FISA judges. It also seemed likely, given the Bush/Cheney administration’s public stance that everyone was either “with us or against us,” and that critics of the administration’s “War on Terror” or of its plans to invade Iraq, were “unpatriotic” or “soft on terror,” that congressional opponents of the administration would be obvious—and indeed irresistible–targets of that surveillance.
Now that we have seen proof that the prior administration was not above using its NSA-acquired knowledge to pressure a member of Congress, it becomes absolutely essential that Congress and the Justice Department investigate to see whether other members of Congress were also victims of agency spying, and whether others besides Rep. Harman were similarly extorted or otherwise compromised.
The American public can, at this point, have zero confidence in the integrity of the Congress or of their own representatives, knowing that politicians and government officials may be acting not in the public interest but rather under duress in the interest of those who control the National Security Agency. We can have zero confidence either in the integrity of the president, who likewise may well have been compromised by NSA surveillance conducted on him before he became president.
The only possible position for the public to adopt as of today is to be suspicious of any politician who opposes a full and public investigation into the NSA’s seven-year-long campaign of sweeping, warrantless electronic eavesdropping, since opposition to such an investigation, in the wake of the Harman episode, could well be an indication that the political figure in question is afraid she or he has been monitored, or worse, that she or he has been threatened by those who have the records. Every citizen concerned about the fate of American democracy should demand that his or her senators and representative promptly call for such a public probe. Even if the administration isn’t blackmailing individual members of Congress, given that many of them are sure to have ethical, legal or moral skeletons in their closets that they would not want revealed, just knowing that the NSA has been and could be monitoring their communications, and that the White House hasn’t been above using that information against a member, could make them pliant and cowardly.
It is no longer a wild idea at all to imagine that our Congress has been reduced to the status of a Potemkin legislature because of real or imagined spying by the NSA.
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org