Representative Jane Harman, under scrutiny for allegedly pledging in a 2005 phone call to try and help two former officials of an Israeli lobbying group accused of conspiring to pass classified information, told TIME on Tuesday that she is not worried about her fate.
She frets far more, she claimed, about whether government agencies are listening to the conversations of private citizens.(Read "Feds Probe a Top Democrat's Relationship with AIPAC".)
"My concern is not about me," she said. "My concern is whether there have been widespread abuses [that] may impact the members of Congress, but, more importantly, may impact a broad cross section of the American public who don't have the bully pulpit that I do."
Then, drawing on a famous image from The Godfather, she portrayed herself as a victim intended to scare and intimidate others. "I'm the horse head in the bed," she said.(Read a two-minute bio on Harman.)
According to Congressional Quarterly, Harman was allegedly overheard by a government agency discussing a proposal to come to the aid of two Israeli lobbyists during a federal investigation into the person with whom Harman was speaking. The name of that individual has not been disclosed, though sources told the New York Times that the person promised in return to convince Hollywood Democratic fundraiser Haim Saban (popularizer of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers) to withhold funds from then minority leader Nancy Pelosi unless Pelosi gave Harman the chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee when and if the Democrats won back the House in 2006. (Read TIME's exclusive 2006 report on the government's investigation of Harman.)
Sources say the federal case against the former American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) agents may be on the verge of being dropped, perhaps prompting the leak.
In any case, Harman is pushing back hard against the allegations, calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to release all investigative materials, unredacted, to her immediately. And she scoffed at the idea that she would intervene on behalf of the accused lobbyists.
"This must be my 15 minutes," she said. "I've never intervened or asked for leniency for anybody being prosecuted, present or former employees of AIPAC or anybody else," she said. "That is just a farcical idea that I would have to cut a deal with AIPAC or somebody to get their attention. They're old friends of mine."
When asked about the conversation itself, though, Harman was on less sure footing: "I don't remember my view is: rather than speculate about what I might have said four years ago that I would like to read the full transcript with you because you will see it too because that's my intention, to disclose whatever I read to the public, and we'll see what I said, to whom, and the context in which I said it. And at that point, I'd be happy to explain anything I can remember or the logic or the illogic of anything I may have said." (Read "Harman Defends Herself on MSNBC.")
As for the eavesdropping on a lawmaker's call, she said, "It's been an abuse of power: selective leaking of very sensitive investigative material for political purposes is wrong." Harman said she didn't remember with whom she spoke but subsequently told NPR that she's sure the person was a U.S. citizen. Congressional Quarterly, which broke the story on Monday, described the person as an "Israeli agent."
According to the CQ story, Justice Department officials recommended launching a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into Harman but were held back by then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who allegedly argued to then CIA Director Porter Goss and then Director of National Intelligence Michael Hayden that Gonzales needed Harman's support as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee to defend President George W. Bush's warrantless wiretaps.
Harman's allies seemed to close ranks around her on Tuesday. The group included House Speaker Pelosi, who said, "Congresswoman Harman has many fans who advocate for her, and to juxtapose that on any other activities ... is just not correct. What is true is that everybody knows I don't respond to threats, so it wouldn't be useful to use them." Added Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein: "I know Jane Harman. I know her to be of the highest integrity. She has asked that all the materials connected with it be released, and I hope that her request is granted. I think it's very important that it be granted." Even a few Republicans defended Harman. "I would find it virtually impossible to believe that Jane would act in any other than professional manner," said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican. "I know her very well; she has very high ethical standards."
With reporting by Bevan Schneck / Washington