U.S. Might Not Try Pro-Israel Lobbyists

Rep. Jane Harman called a wiretap of her calls an
Rep. Jane Harman called a wiretap of her calls an "abuse of power." (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By R. Jeffrey Smith, Walter Pincus and Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The U.S. government may abandon espionage-law charges against two former lobbyists for a pro-Israel advocacy group, officials said yesterday, as a prominent House lawmaker denied new allegations that she offered to use her influence in their behalf.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) accused the government of an "abuse of power" in wiretapping her conversations, following news reports that she had been recorded in 2006 on FBI wiretaps that officials at the time said raised questions of possible illegal conduct.

Harman's expression of outrage added a political dimension to the prosecution of the two former lobbyists, who were charged in 2005 under a World War I-era espionage law with conspiring to give national defense information to journalists and Israeli Embassy officials.

With the trial set to begin June 2, the Justice Department is reviewing whether to proceed as planned or withdraw the indictments after a series of adverse court rulings, according to law enforcement sources and lawyers close to the case.

Defense attorneys recently subpoenaed a number of senior Bush administration officials, including former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, former national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, and former high-level Defense Department officials Paul D. Wolfowitz and Douglas J. Feith.

Transcripts of the FBI wiretaps depict a possible trade of favors in which Harman expressed willingness to discuss the American Israel Public Affairs Committee prosecution with senior administration officials and, in return, backers of Israel would provide Democrats with additional campaign contributions and support Harman's efforts to become chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In that job, Harman -- who was already the panel's senior Democrat -- would have maintained access to some of the nation's most sensitive secrets, through intelligence briefings typically reserved for just four to eight top lawmakers.

After the 2006 election, Harman's promotion was shouldered aside by a fellow Californian with whom she has long had difficult relations, newly chosen House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D). And the Justice Department, after prolonged internal discussions, dropped its investigation of Harman without briefing congressional leaders, who are normally notified whenever a lawmaker is implicated in a national security investigation, according to two additional sources.

Although the government's probe of Harman was disclosed in 2006, the existence of transcripts depicting what she said in the phone calls surfaced this week on the Congressional Quarterly Web site. She told reporters yesterday that as far as she knows, the calls in question were conversations with U.S. citizens that took place within the country.

In a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., Harman said she never contacted the Justice Department or the White House to "seek favorable treatment regarding the national security cases on which I was briefed, or any other cases." She also said that "it is entirely appropriate to converse with advocacy organizations and constituent groups," and expressed concern that the allegations about what she said in her conversations might have "a chilling effect on other elected officials who may find themselves in my situation."

Harman further called on the department to release in full any transcripts and other material involving her that were collected during the federal probe, so she could make them public.

Matthew A. Miller, a Justice Department spokesman, said: "We are reviewing the congresswoman's letter," adding that the department had no further comment.

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