The Justice Department is reviewing one of its most politically sensitive cases in recent years, and may drop or downgrade charges against two former pro-Israel lobbyists accused of illegally disclosing national defense secrets, a federal law enforcement official said Tuesday.
The revelation adds a new twist to a controversy surrounding Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), who is trying to beat back media reports that a federal wiretap recorded her offering to intervene with the Justice Department on behalf of the lobbyists.
Harman has strongly denied any wrongdoing.
In a letter to Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. on Tuesday, she said she was “outraged” at reports that several of her calls had been secretly recorded by the government in 2005 and 2006 while she was a prominent member of the House Intelligence Committee.
“This abuse of power is outrageous,” Harman wrote. She challenged the Justice Department to release any materials implicating her.
The wiretaps were part of an espionage investigation of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a well-known pro-Israel lobby group. At the time, two former AIPAC analysts, Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, had been charged with conspiring to obtain information about Iran and other Middle East nations from then-Pentagon analyst Lawrence A. Franklin to pass along to an Israeli Embassy official.
According to Congressional Quarterly and the New York Times, the wiretaps recorded Harman offering to intervene in the case in return for support of her effort to be named head of the intelligence panel.
According to the news reports, that support would come from California entertainment mogul Haim Saban, who allegedly would threaten to withhold campaign donations from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unless Harman was named chairwoman.
Harman was not named chairwoman, and Pelosi said Tuesday that Saban never pressed her on that front.
When asked what was behind the allegations Tuesday, Saban replied: “No idea.”
Harman insisted in an interview that she had done nothing inappropriate on behalf of the two men or AIPAC.
“It was totally proper to talk to folks about my desire to be chairman of the committee,” Harman said. “I thought I’d earned it, and I thought it had been promised.”
The Justice Department and the FBI have declined to comment on Harman’s role, but David W. Szady, head of counterintelligence for the FBI from 2001 to 2006, said he was not aware of any improper contacts from Harman.
The prosecution of the two AIPAC analysts, which began in 2005, has been set back by recent court rulings that would allow the defense to present some classified evidence at trial. The two have adamantly maintained their innocence. The trial is set for June, after being postponed nearly a dozen times since 2006.
One Justice Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of internal deliberations, said the department is concerned that the case may not be winnable. Others in the department are determined to proceed with the prosecution.
It is unclear what, if any, political effect the dust-up over Harman’s voice on the espionage wiretaps will have on the department’s decision to proceed to trial or drop or downgrade the charges.
The existence of Harman’s voice on the wiretaps was confirmed by current and former U.S. government officials. The officials said that Harman was not the target of the surveillance.
A former U.S. intelligence official said that then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss signed an application for a warrant to extend the wiretapping operation after Harman had been identified on the recordings.
In her letter to Holder, Harman urged the attorney general to release all transcripts and other investigative material involving her in an unredacted form, so she could make the material available to the public in order to show that she had done nothing wrong.
She also asked Holder “to take appropriate steps to investigate possible wiretapping of other members of Congress and selective leaks of investigative material which can be used for political purposes.”
“As you know, it is entirely appropriate to converse with advocacy organizations and constituent groups, and I am concerned about a chilling effect on other elected officials who may find themselves in my situation,” Harman said.
Harman insisted that she never contacted the Department of Justice, the White House or anyone else “to seek favorable treatment regarding the national security cases on which I was briefed, or any other cases.”
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Harman also appeared to question the legality of the wiretaps. While she said she could not recall the details of conversations with AIPAC officials, “anyone I might have talked to was an American citizen, and these were conversations that took place in the United States.”
The government is not supposed to use intelligence-gathering authorities to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens. But legal experts say there are exceptions, and that U.S. citizens can be targeted if the government can demonstrate to a special intelligence court that there is reason to suspect the citizen is acting as an agent of a foreign government.
James Oliphant and Richard Simon in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.
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The A merican Israel Public Affairs Committee is one of the best-conne cted lobbying groups in Washin gton.
Funded by its 100,000 members, AIPAC bills itself as “America’s pro-Israel lobby.”
The organization’s goal is to “help make Israel more secure,” its website says.
As successes, it cites bills and resolutions “condemning and imposing tough sanctions on Iran” and requiring the U.S. to evaluate military sales to Arab states “in the context of the need to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge over potential adversaries.”