The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Transcript: A Conversation with Jane Harman

MR. IGNATIUS: Welcome to Washington Post Live. I am David Ignatius, a columnist for the Post.

Today our guest is Jane Harman, a seven-term member of Congress--nine-term former member of Congress and the former president of the Woodrow Wilson Center here in Washington. She has just written a new book called "Insanity Defense: Why Our Failure to Confront Hard National Security Problems Makes Us Less Safe."

A word for viewers about Jane Harman, if you go to any gathering on security or defense issues in the United States or around the world, you're likely to see Jane Harman speaking. She is one of the leading experts and voices on these issues. It's a pleasure to have Jane Harman with us today.

Welcome, Jane.

MS. HARMAN: Thank you, David.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, Jane, I want to start off with an obvious question, which is to ask you to explain the title of your book, "Insanity Defense." What did you mean by "Insanity Defense"?

MS. HARMAN: This is softball. I hope my youngest daughter, Justine Harman, is listening. She writes articles and podcasts, and when I told her about the title I intended for this book, she said, "Mother, that's so boring. The right title is 'Insanity Defense,'" and it's the right title.

Why is that? It is because the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, and from my personal vantage point, as you point out, from Congress and then a glorious decade at the Wilson Center, I have seen how we keep trying the same things and we don't make the country safer.

We haven't had a strategy since the end of the Cold War, and I think finally with the Biden administration, we have what is beginning to look like a strategy for foreign and security policy.

MR. IGNATIUS: We'll come back to your book and some of the details in your fascinating narrative of things that you've lived through, but I want to start off with President Biden. You just mentioned your hope that he will find the strategy that's been lacking. Give us your sense as, as you like to say, a recovering politician of how he's doing in this first 100-plus days, what he's done right, and to the extent you see some areas where he needs improvement, what they would be.

MS. HARMAN: Well, I don't think we have five hours for that, but let me try in a sound bite. I first met him when he was entering the Senate. He looked like a deer in the headlights. His wife and daughter had just been killed, and I was chief counsel for a California senator, John Tunney, on the Judiciary Committee, and Biden joined the Judiciary Committee. So, I have watched Biden for a long, long time.

And what I see now in Biden as president is different, certainly, from the early Biden, but even the intermediate Biden, this is a guy who is very experienced, who has the A team advising him, and who knows that these half measures or no measures that we've been taking, especially in the foreign policy space for a long time, aren't working and is ready to place big bets.

So, how do I rate this? I think the articulation of the Interim National Security Strategy by Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan was excellent. What are they doing? They're taking the foreign out of foreign policy, making it relevant to Americans, you know, foreign policy for the middle class, and Biden is acting on that. And he's made some moves that you could criticize, and in fact, David you have on Afghanistan. I'm sure you'll ask me about it, but I think they're the right moves.

What has he done? You asked me the good and the bad. What has he not done? Well, I think, I still think, that he ought to be trying harder to fashion bipartisan compromises with Congress on every issue.

MR. IGNATIUS: We'll come back to bipartisanship and whether it's possible, which is something I very much want to talk about, but let's turn to Afghanistan, which you've just mentioned. It's probably the most consequential decision that President Biden has made, certainly in foreign policy since he took office.

I have written in my column that my fear is that a small force that was helping provide stability in Afghanistan, the withdrawal of that force may lead to a flood of refugees out of that country, greater instability.

Your friend, who you write about in your book, David Petraeus, who was our commander in Afghanistan and Iraq both, has expressed real concern that this is a mistake, that it's removing a low-cost, high-benefit option for us. Why do you disagree with that and think it's something worth doing?

MS. HARMAN: Well, I haven't said it's a great idea. I said it's the least bad option. To quote something that Jake Sullivan said the other day, he said, "We won't have the same capability, but we will have a sufficient capability. Our repositioning capabilities will put us in a better position to overcome terrorism," and I kind of see it that way.

What we were doing in Afghanistan wasn't working well. I'm sure nobody would argue that. I thought that Donald Trump was right to put an able diplomat, Zal Khalilzad, who is still there--I mean, he was asked by the Biden crowd to stay--to try to negotiate a deal with the Taliban. What was wrong with that was it cut out government of Afghanistan, which I think is a terrible mistake, but I think the notion of continuing to negotiate of surging soft power into Afghanistan is right.

What's wrong is perpetuating this tiny little force which may help us in certain respects deter smaller actions but won't help us if there is a surge of terrorism in the country, and I just think we're better off, a hope--not just hoping--working on a diplomatic solution and making it clear that endless wars are not going to be the centerpiece of America's foreign policy.

MR. IGNATIUS: You, Jane, served on the House Intelligence Committee for many years, and you're well versed in these very difficult intelligence and national security problems. We just commemorated the 10th anniversary of the special forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. That raid was conducted into Pakistan from Afghanistan, and there is a question that people have raised about whether we're going to be able to maintain the kind of CT, counterterrorism, coverage that we need of Afghanistan, as al-Qaeda and other groups try to rebuild there, from the kind of distances we'll have to travel. It's been said that we may have to place drones and other assets as far away as Saudi Arabia or the UAE, a long way from Afghanistan.

My simple question is, are you confident based on what you know that we will be able to have enough CT capability, even though it's at greater distance, to keep the homeland safe?

MS. HARMAN: Well, I no longer am in the classified briefings that I attended for years or the Gang of Eight briefing, which is for the senior people on the intelligence committees and the leadership of Congress. So, I don't know everything.

But I believe we have much better intelligence capability than we had 10 years ago. I think that the raid that was conducted and approved by Obama against the advice of some of his key people, including Joe Biden, was brilliant, and I think it is right to salute Bill McRaven and the other heroes of that raid and how it was done and even how the body was disposed of at sea after the right Muslim rights were given it. It was just every detail was thought through. Will we be safe enough? I think that's the question. I hope so.

But I remember, David--I think you do too--that we didn't want to offend Erdoğan of Turkey because we were afraid he would take away Incirlik Air Force Base, which is how we stage a lot of our stuff into our Middle East wars, and just three days ago or so--and I'm sure you commend this--Joe Biden recognized the Armenian genocide after all the presidents prior to him refused to do so.

I think that we have a president who's pretty bold, and I think this is a hard decision, again, the least bad decision, but if we don't get out now, we'll never get out.

MR. IGNATIUS: That's succinctly and clearly stated.

Let me turn now, Jane, to your book, "Insanity Defense." One of the strengths of this book, I should tell our viewers, is that Congressman Harman is very honest about some of the tough decisions that she participated in that sometimes didn't turn out the way that she and others would have wanted, and she goes through that. Sometimes people try to paper over mistakes or issues that were difficult.

I want to ask you about a few of those, starting with the 2001 authorization to use military force on which the administrations have relied ever since forever, the broader uses of force. As you look at the situation, Jane, I'm assuming that you think it's time now for Congress to be more explicitly involved in decisions to use force and not to keep returning to the AUMF as a blanket justification.

MS. HARMAN: You bet. I'm sure you're going to ask me about Congress, and I do have my last chapter entitled "The Incredible Shrinking Congress," shrinking on both sides, not just a partisan rant here. I'm not known for those.

But on this point, all the members of Congress, except for one, Barbara Lee of Berkeley, who still serves in Congress and who made a vote of conscience--and it was brave. All the rest of us voted to authorize the use of force against those who attacked us on 9/11. It was the right vote, and we went into Afghanistan, and we did that. And we didn't obliterate all of it, but we substantially raided those forces that attacked us and made it impossible, at least in those constructions, to attack us again. That is the point at which we should have had Plan B.

Dave Petraeus--and you point out in Afghanistan that he and I, dear friends, sometimes disagree--always asks, "How will this end?" and I think we forgot to ask the question.

On the AUMF, we have kept it in place, even though lots of the folks who attacked us are gone, and new terror groups that had nothing to do with this have emerged and justified--sit down for this one--40 military actions in 19 countries. Why? Because Congress hasn't repealed and replaced the old threadbare 2001 AUMF, and that's a point I make that I just am heartbroken about.

The American people are the ones who should be in this fight. They should understand what we're doing, how much it costs, and what the casualty possibilities are, these fights, not just one fight, and because Congress hasn't mustered the will to authorize the use of force going forward, they're not in the fight. And members of Congress are ducking the issue and blaming the consequences on whoever is the president of the United States, and I think that is an abdication of responsibility.

MR. IGNATIUS: That's an astounding number, 40 different combat operations hung on this one fairly frail resolution, but we know one reason that that's so. Congress won't face up to the question of authorizing a new AUMF, and there's no reason, looking at Congress' operations day to day, for me to be confident at all that they could rise to the challenge. This is a Congress that can't seem to agree on the most basic things.

Honestly, Jane, are they really in a position to make the decisions about whether we should go to war or not?

MS. HARMAN: Should they do it? Yes. Will they do it? Maybe not. But let's understand--and I took this oath nine times. My oath was to the Constitution which provides that Congress--it's Congress' duty to defend our country and to fund our wars, and Congress isn't stepping up to its duty.

There are hard issues around this. Do we want an AUMF for every single military activity? I would say no. The president is commander in chief under Article II of the Constitution, and he can take the U.S. into war on an emergency basis, but on a long-term basis, should we have guardrails around what we're doing? Absolutely. Should Congress micromanage this? I would say no, but this is what Congress is for. Have a big debate around how to authorize the use of force for the future.

I think if Joe Biden were still there as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he would insist on it.

MR. IGNATIUS: Well, he's the person, being a man of the Senate, who could lead this debate about some return of congressional war-making powers.

Let me ask you about another tough decision, one that we're all still haunted by, and that was the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. You had a lot of company in supporting that, including yours truly. I wrote columns saying that on balance, I thought it was a good idea. I wish I could take them back.

Looking back, Jane, what do you think is the lesson of that mistake, if you think it's a mistake, in terms of the failure to surface what was at the time quite a lot of skepticism within the military and within the State Department, the CIA about the wisdom of doing this? It just never percolated to the top. What do you think we can do to avoid that ever happening again?

MS. HARMAN: Well, to be fair to those at the time, including you and me and a lot of other people--I remember vaunted Meg Greenfield of The Washington Post wrote an op-ed that said, "I am convinced." To be fair to us, we all thought the country could be attacked again, and one of the things some of us thought was that chemical weapons could be, in some surreptitious way, shipped into the U.S. to attack America, and so we were worried about that.

I certainly didn't buy the other theory, the domino theory that democracy would break out in the Middle East which was pushed by the so-called "neocons" and Paul Wolfowitz, who was deputy secretary of defense at the time, but there was intelligence--and this is your point, I think, David--that even Colin Powell believed or he believed some of it--and he said so at the UN, a huge speech that got enormous attention. Colin Powell was then secretary of state, and the intelligence showed what I just said.

The intelligence was cherrypicked and inaccurate, and the lesson we learned--personally learned it big time--was that we could not afford yet a third intelligence failure. The first one was 9/11. This was the second one, and that's why I with others on a bipartisan basis, including Susan Collins, still a Republican Senator, and Pete Hoekstra, the former Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee--I was ranking member--and Joe Lieberman, who was Susan's ranking member in the Senate at the time, crafted legislation to reform our intelligence community, and we set up the director of national intelligence function. The DNI didn't exist before. We created a National Counterterrorism Center inside this apparatus, and we changed the way these national intelligence estimates are written. And never again would the dissent of a federal agency, in this case, in your case that we're talking about--the State Department dissented its intel branch, and nobody knew that. And there were questions about vetting some of the sources, like a German name, "Curveball," whom, apparently, we never interviewed.

My bottom line is, so far as I know, these NIEs are still much better done. "Speaking truth to power" is restored as the mantra of our intelligence community, which is supervised by a joint commander function, first woman, Avril Haines, who is the director of national intelligence.

It's been an uneven ride. It's 50 percent legislation, 50 percent leadership, but I think we are in much better shape. And I don't think the intel failure of Iraq could happen again.

MR. IGNATIUS: I hope that's right. The question that people often ask about the new structure that was created, the office of the director of national intelligence, the mission managers under the director, is whether it's layering, it's too bureaucratic, it duplicates too much the activities of the CIA. For example, do we really need two separate analytical bodies, the CIA and the ODNI? Are you comfortable with that and confident that we're not layering and overly bureaucratizing intelligence?

MS. HARMAN: No. I'm actually not comfortable with that.

Susan Collins and I jointly last week had a conversation with Dave Petraeus about this, and our intention in the law was to create a nimble and a small office, which would incorporate the community management service, which was a nominal, tiny management operation run by the CIA before we did this, and detailees from various intel agencies to be a command coordinating structure across 16 intelligence agencies. We did not envision this bureaucracy. We think this bureaucracy carefully and capably should be reduced, and our original concept is better. Hopefully, that's what will happen.

I mean, mission creep and expansion of bureaucracy is a sickness of all of our government agencies, and here, we can't afford it, because joint tasking of satellites and clear view into missions and the unscrambling of conflicting intel views is crucial if we're going to see what's coming against us.

Intelligence is not a science. It's a set of predictions based on intent and capability, and it's really hard. And we need the unencumbered ability of our best and brightest to speak this kind of truth to our policymakers or we're not going to get the best policy.

MR. IGNATIUS: Let me ask, finally, from your book about one of the most difficult chapters that you describe, and that's the question of torture. The polite euphemism was "enhanced interrogation techniques," but you're very forthright in saying that you were briefed in 2003 on the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was thought knew about plots that we hadn't uncovered yet that could involve radiological weapons, all sorts of terrible things, and that you were in that briefing from the CIA, told that they were using enhanced techniques. They were a little vague about it.

You were the only person who got that briefing who wrote the CIA asking for more details. You had more questions, but here's the basic thing I want to ask, Jane. As you look back, is there something you would have done differently, or is the simple fact of the matter that members of the intelligence committees that are briefed on these secrets are just so limited in what they can say and do that your ability to have pushed back was just limited by the rules of the game?

MS. HARMAN: That's such a good question, and the answer is hard because--could I personally have done more? In several circumstances. I also put in the book that I didn't object, did not object, the first time I was told that Guantanamo prison was set up there to be outside the reach of U.S. law. Imagine, I, a graduate of Harvard Law School, did know better, and fortunately, the Supreme Court saved the day a few years later.

But on this one, it was close to 9/11. We were all unsure about another attack, and our government wasn't adequately prepared for handling or interrogating and detaining these folks who would not just come off the battlefield. They weren't people with red and blue uniforms firing muskets at each other. This was one of the hard parts of this.

KSM was apprehended in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan. It is a really hard thing to know what we should have done, but in hindsight, what we should have done, what everyone should have done is Congress and the executive branch should have worked together quickly to put up a set of even emergency procedures that would apply here, and that wasn't done. We had the Geneva Conventions. We had the U.S. Constitution, but we didn't have everything we needed to speak to the moment.

And so, the default option was the training exercises that our troops have used were used against the people we detained, and some of that was just horrible. I was shocked to hear about waterboarding, and the result is that those people who were tortured--and I think that's not an unfair way to see this--those who are still incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay prison can't be tried under the rules of evidence because the evidence is tainted. And I would argue--and I do in the book--that we need a new doctrine of preventive detention just for a few people we can't try, but we can't release, and we have to go there.

It's another hard problem because the idea of just holding people in some place in another country, which now fortunately is within the rule of law, holding them indefinitely, it seems to me, is not tenable and not consistent with our core values.

MR. IGNATIUS: Through the book, as I mentioned, you sensed the dilemma of being a senior member of Congress read into our nation's greatest secrets but also trying to exercise oversight and restraint. It's a fascinating part of the book.

MS. HARMAN: I didn't answer one--oh, sorry. Just one thing you said was, "Did we get enough information in Congress?" Answer, no. Very hard to do it. Pete Hoekstra, who was then the chairman of the intel committee when I was ranking member, used to call it "20/20." We were playing 20/20. If you didn't ask exactly the right question, you didn't get the answer you were looking for, and that was very hard.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, Jane, every summer until the pandemic, you would host as part of the Aspen Strategy Group a homeland security forum in Aspen, getting the leading experts on homeland security to sit and talk and think about the problems. I want to ask you with that personal background, what keeps you up at night? What in this area of threats to the homeland do you think we're not paying enough attention to right now?

MS. HARMAN: Well, I think the biggest threat--there are two sets of threats that really scare me. One is evolving technology, trying to figure out what we don't know, and cyber is becoming ever more sophisticated. Everyone understands this. The SolarWinds attack by Russia was penetrating both Russian--both government and private systems through servers in the U.S., Russia figured out that coming here would evade a lot of the ways we could have captured them, and so that's a new thing. And that's very, very scary.

The other thing I would say is the new ways of recruiting and radicalizing domestic terrorists, and hip-hop and all these cute ways to hook kids on bad things are very hard to stop. And so, I understand it, a lot of people who participated in the 1/6 attack on the Capitol, which was the scariest thing I've ever seen in Washington, didn't really know that they were doing anything wrong. Is that possible? I think it's possible.

So, if you're recruiting people who really don't understand that they're doing anything wrong and you're doing it in this illicit and form of--with this illicit form of entrapment, really, how do we protect ourselves? My answer is that Joe Biden, with is big bets and his good team, trying to rebuild community in the U.S., trying to rebuild process, trying to make the story of America the "shining city on the Hill again," Ronald Reagan's phrase, has got a chance to penetrate these poor alienated folk and to really build back better.

MR. IGNATIUS: Let's close with a few questions about Congress. You call in your book for more bipartisanship. Certainly, through your career, you were a person who was in the center on national security and other issues. President Biden, similarly a man of the Senate through is career, is trying to speak to the country as a whole, but there are many Democrats who say with this Republican Congress, it's a fool's game, that they're just not going to give an inch, and that there's no point in trying to craft bipartisan solutions. You ought to just ram it through, use reconciliation, bust the filibuster. What's your judgment about that? Do you think there's still some space for bipartisanship? Are there more people like your friend, Susan Collins, out there if the Democrats reach for them?

MS. HARMAN: I think it will be a very steep hill to climb, but I think it's worth trying to climb it. I think we've learned in recent years that it may be unclimbable, and so, at some point, yes, I'm for Biden proceeding with the remedies he has.

I think that the talking filibuster is a really good reform. That means you have to be on the floor the whole time to filibuster, object to a procedure or a bill. I think that would do wonders to reduce its use. I wouldn't throw it out yet. I sure would not.

But I think reconciliation may have to be used and was used actually for the first COVID relief package, which is a very significant package.

But my counsel, if Joe Biden called me and said, "Jane, what do I do?" I'd say, "Try as hard as you can, and only give up if the best people you can find in the Republican Party just can't get to 10," which is the magic number that they need.

And I'd make one other point. The resignations of Republicans and Democrats in the center are terrible news for the country, and the new census shows that a few Democratic seats will probably be lost to Republicans. And the margin in the House is razor thin, and the margin in the Senate is zero. So that pushes people into their partisan corners, and I've said for years that the business model of Congress is broken, not the people. But the business model is. Blame the other side for not solving the problem, because if you work with the other side, then you're bipartisan, and that makes you target practice in your primary.

Hello, anybody out there who wants to put the country first. Please put the country first, not your reelection first.

MR. IGNATIUS: We have just one minute left. I'm going to ask you one quick last question. You mentioned January 6th, the horrifying images that are still seared on all our memories. How do Democrats or do reasonable people reach out to the substantial majority of Republican voters who think still that the election was stolen from Donald Trump? How do we speak to those people and get back on the same track together?

MS. HARMAN: Well, it's going to be hard. I am stunned that such a large percentage of the Republican Party that's being polled--I don't know. Our polling hasn't been the most accurate enterprise in recent years, in case anyone is missing that, but those polls say that they still think the election was rigged. And there's not a lot of objection to outsourcing the Arizona result to a private firm in Florida. What?

But, at any rate, I think the answer is going to be that the alienated folk who became the Trump voters have to be reached by Joe Biden, and I think his bet is that certainly this first package on COVID will help reach them, and the second package on infrastructure--and I do think there will be a package, and I hope it might be some bipartisan pieces of that package--that will reach them too. And when they see a different world than they have known in recent years or maybe even for the first time, a world that is different from their own--well, I just basically said that. When they see a difference in their own lives--this is what motivates people to vote--then just maybe they'll move together.

And I don't expect everybody to become a Democrat. I am a Democrat. I'm not planning to change parties ever, but what I'm saying is I expect people to become informed voters. And I want the Republican Party to stand for things. I want a vibrant Republican Party. I want the debate. I think this is how our country grows stronger and better, and nobody has a corner on wisdom. I'm sure Joe Biden would agree with that, but we have to have a corner on action. Inaction is just not going to work right now.

MR. IGNATIUS: Well, so that's our takeaway headline: Congresswoman Harman calls for a vibrant Republican Party.

Jane Harman, thank you so much for being our guest. Jane's book is "Insanity Defense." It's a fascinating look at her time in Congress and dealing with these hard national security problems. Jane, thank you for being our guest.

MS. HARMAN: Thank you, David, and thank you, Washington Post, for informing me well every morning.

MR. IGNATIUS: Tomorrow my colleague, Cat Zakrzewski, will interview Senator Josh Hawley at 10:00 a.m., and at noon, we'll have a special program about diabetes in America. On Thursday, we'll be interviewing Senator Elizabeth Warren. So please stay with us at Washington Post Live. Thanks for joining us today.

[End recorded session]

Loading...