Tuesday, April 28, 2009

CIA 'Whistleblower' Told Hastert About Suppression of Harman Wiretap


April 26, 2009 – 7:55 p.m.

CIA ‘Whistleblower’ Told Hastert About Suppression of Harman Wiretap

By Jeff Stein, CQ Staff

Former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert says he learned from a CIA-connected “whistleblower” in 2006 that Bush administration officials were suppressing the existence of a wiretapped conversation between Rep. Jane Harman and a suspected Israeli agent.

John D. Negroponte, former head of the then newly established Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), had blocked then CIA Director Porter J. Goss from briefing Hastert, according to the account the whistleblower gave the former Republican House speaker.

Gen. Michael V. Hayden , who became CIA director upon Goss’s forced resignation in May 2006, also had not informed Hastert about the wiretap, according to what the whistleblower told Hastert’s aides.

Under a decades-old agreement between Congress and the CIA, the head of U.S. intelligence was supposed to brief the top House Republican and Democrat if one of their members became ensnared in a national security investigation.

Incensed that Bush officials had ignored their obligation to alert him, Hastert demanded an explanation from then-Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Hastert said in an April 25 email.

But Hastert, a former Illinois Republican, was rebuffed, he said. Hastert directed his staff to inform his Democratic counterpart, then Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., about the Harman wiretap.

“In the fall of 2006 a member of my staff was approached by a whistleblower and told that a member of Congress was captured on audiotape while talking to someone who was a target of a legally authorized wiretap related to an espionage investigation,” Hastert said in the e-mail response to questions from Congressional Quarterly.

Hastert was referring to Harman, a California Democrat who was then ranking on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and had made it known she wanted to become the panel’s chairwoman if Democrats gained control of Congress. Former intelligence officials also have identified Harman as the member of Congress picked up on the wiretap.

“The whistleblower came forward because an important protocol was being ignored whereby the congressional leadership is notified of such intercepts,” Hastert said. “Specifically, I was told that the whistleblower indicated that the CIA director was being blocked from briefing the leadership.”

The whistleblower had charged that Negroponte, a career diplomat before he became the first to head the ODNI in 2005, was responsible for blocking Goss from informing House leaders, former Hastert chief of staff Scott Palmer said.

The ODNI, created in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, nominally supplanted the CIA as the leader of U.S. intelligence, a position the agency had held since 1947. But a year after Negroponte took office in 2005, lines of authority remained blurry.

“Normally the briefing would have come from the CIA, but the CIA was now controlled by the DNI,” Palmer said. “So the whistleblower’s concern that the DNI was blocking the briefing seemed credible. But we never did know who precisely who was stopping it.”

Negroponte’s representatives did not respond to a request for comment. Goss declined to discuss the Harman matter last week.

The identity of the whistleblower, “who seemed to be very familiar with the thinking at CIA headquarters,” according to Palmer, was withheld because of a promise of confidentiality.

The information was so sensitive, Palmer said, he and another aide composed and typed Hastert’s letter to Gonzales themselves, rather than dictating it to a secretary.

The two aides then summoned William Moschella, then the Justice Department’s chief of congressional liaison, to pick up the letter in person, “to signify how important we viewed the matter,” Palmer said.

Weeks passed with no response from Gonzales. Finally, Hastert’s staff learned they would not be getting a briefing.

“Basically, they told us, ‘There’s really nothing here that would warrant notifying the leadership, we’re not going to come and brief you,’” Palmer said.

At that point, Hastert’s aides grew concerned that the whistleblower “was becoming agitated” and that the existence of the wiretap might surface, which would have the twin effect of exposing a highly classified operation and unfairly “smearing” Harman as a foreign agent herself.

“We did not have any reason to believe that Harman was a security risk,” Palmer said. “We knew her to be a highly respected member of Congress.”

But Hastert decided that Pelosi needed to know about a national security wiretap that involved Harman, who held a sensitive post on the Intelligence committee.

“When it became clear that we would not get a briefing, and since the individual in question was a member of the Democratic caucus,” Hastert said, “I then instructed my staff in early October 2006 to tell Leader Pelosi, through her staff, what the whistleblower had provided to us so that she would at least have some information and would be able to pursue it further should she decide to do so.”

Palmer said he informed Pelosi’s chief of staff, John A. Lawrence, of the whistleblower’s allegations and that Gonzales had ignored Hastert’s request for a briefing.

Lawrence said April 25 that he “remembers a conversation about it with Scott, but that’s all,” said Pelosi’s Communications Director Brendan Daly. Lawrence declined to discuss the matter further, Daly said.

The existence of the wiretap remained a secret until it was reported by CQ on April 19.

The FBI wanted to question Harman about a wiretapped conversation in which she was heard discussing espionage charges against two former officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most powerful pro-Israel organization in Washington.

According to three former national security officials, Harman was heard promising the suspected Israeli agent that she would intervene with the Bush administration to try to get the espionage charges against the AIPAC officials reduced to lesser felonies.

The suspected Israeli agent in exchange promised to lobby Pelosi to give Harman the chairmanship of the Intelligence committee if the Democrats took control of Congress after the 2006 elections.

Justice Department officials who reviewed the wiretap transcript in 2005 decided there was enough evidence of a “completed crime” to open an FBI investigation, the three former national security officials said.

Harman has vehemently denied that she intervened in the case, and called the allegations, many of which surfaced in 2006, “a recycled canard.” Harman has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

CQ, followed by The New York Times and The Washington Post, reported last week that Gonzales blocked Goss from briefing Pelosi because he “needed Jane,” untainted by scandal, to defend the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.

Harman did indeed defend the program as “necessary” in December 2005 and castigated The New York Times for exposing it.

A follow-up story by CQ on April 22 reported that unnamed intelligence officials, angry at Gonzales for suppressing the briefing to congressional leaders about Harman, went around the attorney general to notify Pelosi. It could not be learned if Pelosi had been approached by Hastert’s “whistleblower” as well, or if the same person was among them.

Hayden learned of the Harman wiretap from a memo left by his predecessor when he became CIA director in May 2006. He took no action to notify congressional leaders, as required by a separation of powers protocol in place since the mid-1980s, Pelosi and Hastert have indicated.

Instead, Hayden gave Harman an award.

On June 18, 2007, the new CIA chief presented Harman with the Agency Seal Medal, “in appreciation for her thoughtful and thorough oversight of CIA as ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.”

Harman also got a shout-out from no less than President George W. Bush , at the swearing-in ceremony for John Negroponte when he traded in heading the ODNI to become deputy secretary of State.

“I appreciate very much Congresswoman Jane Harman for joining us,” the president said. “It’s a great tribute to a good man.”

Jeff Stein can be reached at jstein@cq.com.

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