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Monday, April 20, 2009

Harman Tape Leak A Shot Across Israel's Bow

CQ Politics reports, based on an anonymous source, that California Democratic Representative Jane Harman "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 denies the allegations.

As others have pointed out, the story is replete with open questions, such as who was the "suspected Israeli agent," and whether such person was Israeli or American or other. Others question the timing, coming soon before the trial of the AIPAC officials is to take place (after the DOJ suffered serious legal setbacks on the case).

While these analyses are interesting, they miss the point. Leaks of highly classified NSA wiretaps don't just happen. Someone has to have a purpose, and have confidence that they will not become the subject of prosecution for leaking the material. While the leak may have some relationship to the upcoming trial, I think it is more likely that the leak is an attempt to set supporters of Israel back on their heels in light of a growing U.S.-Israel dispute over Israel's alleged plans to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. Israel denies have imminent plans to attack, although one would not expect such acknowledgement anyway.

Israel's plans to attack Iran have been receiving increased press attention, drawing a public voice of disapproval from U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. I think this analysis from the website DebkaFile highlights the shift in American strategic thinking:
...Israel is no longer a prime factor in US global policy, because America has fundamentally reshuffled its Middle East allegiances and alliances. Even Tzipi Livni at the helm in Jerusalem would not divert Obama from his détente with Ahmadinejad, Assad and Chavez.

To gain points with his new friends, Obama's White House is not above nudging Israel to please them. This week, his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told Jewish leaders whom he met in Washington that if Israel wants America's help for thwarting Iran's nuclear program, it must first start evacuating West Bank settlements.

This was of course cynical claptrap.

Even if every single settlement were to be removed and Israel lined up with Obama's quest for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, the US president would not drop Tehran or help Israel strike Iran's nuclear facilities. He has already ceded Tehran's uranium enrichment program (and therefore its drive for nuclear arms), and would forcefully oppose any Israeli military action. US defense secretary Robert Gates indicated as much this week when he went to almost absurd lengths to play down the Iranian nuclear threat and Israel's ability to handle it.

The leak of the Harman wiretap cannot be divorced from the looming Iran issue. What else could explain the timing of a leak of a conversation which took place years ago? Leaking such a conversation would have little or no effect on the upcoming trial, but would affect the ability of supporters of Israel on Capital Hill from being heard in support of Israel's right of self-defense.

Supporters of Israel, particularly Jewish supporters such as Harman, always are at risk of a charge of dual loyalty. Playing the dual loyalty card has taken place almost as long as Israel has existed, but has come back in vogue in recent years. It is interesting that the source of the story refers to the person as a "suspected" agent of Israel, which means there likely is no hard evidence that the person was actually acting on behalf of the government of Israel, as opposed to merely being a supporter of Israel.

There is a legitimate debate over whether the U.S. should support, or at least not stop, an Israeli attack on Iran. Opposition to an attack is not itself playing the dual-loyalty card, or even anti-Israel. U.S. policy makers should do what they feel is in the U.S.'s best interest. But silencing debate through use of the dual-loyalty card reflects that some feel they cannot win that debate on the merits.

Correction: In the post, I originally spelled Harman as "Harmon." The misspelling has been corrected now.

UPDATE: Apparently the NY Times is denying the allegation in the CQ Politics story that Harman intervened to convince The Times to hold off revealing the warrantless wiretap program.

UPDATE No. 2: How interesting that the leftwing blogosphere is approaching this story so uncritically and unquestioningly. Bloggers who never accept any government espionage source as being truthful (can you spell "weapons of mass destruction") are falling all over themselves about the "careful" reporting of this anonymously sourced story, perhaps because it provides an anti-Bush angle: Wonkette, DailyKOS, The Nation, Glenn Greenwald, Think Progress, Talk Left, and FireDogLake, to name a few.

UPDATE No. 3: David Frum has a very interesting piece on the Harman "leak" issue. (h/t Instapundit). I was most interested in Frum's point that the NY Times and Washington Post have done enormous damage to this country's safety:
Two months after Franklin’s sentencing, another leak of classified information hit the newspapers. On Dec. 16, 2005, The New York Times reported the existence of a vast, unknown National Security Agency program to intercept foreign electronic communications.

Unlike the Franklin leak, which was intended to jolt an unwilling bureaucracy into action to defend the country, the Times leak was intended (by the leakers) to sabotage a program integral to that defense. The leak lethally compromised a vital intelligence-collection effort. In terms of its direct and immediate usefulness to America’s enemies, the Times story may count as the worst betrayal of vital national information in a generation.

Needless to say, nobody has ever been prosecuted for that or for any of the other leaks that did actual damage to American security since 9/11, such as The Washington Post leak that revealed the locations of prisons in which high-value al Qaida detainees were being held.

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  1. I don't get how it's even remotely acceptable for a public servant in the United States to even be questionably of "dual loyalty" to Israel; if this was even suspected to be the case with any other nation, it would be plastered as treason.

    Like I said in my blog, I will prove AIPAC is the most powerful lobby in the U.S., simply by virtue that nobody involved in this, esp. Ms. Harmon, will see any trouble, let alone criminal probes or charges.

  2. I just came in from the left wing (I'm one of those evil "libruls") and the story is raising questions on our side too.

    The truth doesn't (or shouldn't) have a "wing"

  3. This wasn't FISA, this was a Title III wiretap. Nothing to do with the FISA court, but alot to do with a criminal case.