While reportedly under investigation for her ties to an influential pro-Israel lobbying organization, California Rep. Jane Harman last month hosted a private dinner for the group that was attended by two top Bush administration officials—Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff.
The Sept. 13 dinner took place at the home of Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, and was attended by over 120 top financial backers of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The highlight of the evening was a panel discussion in which Harman played the host, questioning Negroponte and Chertoff about Mideast developments, international terrorism and homeland-security issues, according to an AIPAC official.
The dinner was hardly an unusual one for AIPAC. The group often arranges such elite pow-wows at the homes of senior members of Congress and government officials (one in the mid-1990s was hosted by then Vice President Al Gore) as a way for AIPAC to both demonstrate its political clout and to provide a perk for major donors.
But last month’s event raises new questions about recent reports that the FBI was investigating whether Harman, an outspoken supporter of Israel, last year may have agreed to improperly influence an ongoing Justice Department probe of AIPAC. The reports of the probe came just a few days after Harman released a politically sensitive House report that included important new details about the investigation surrounding the activities of disgraced former GOP Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham.
The low-level probe into Harman was launched last year after department officials received a tip that Harman was at the same time seeking the assistance of big AIPAC donors to lobby House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to stay on as the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee (and become the panel’s chairman if the Democrats retake control of the House in next month’s elections.)
Harman has dismissed the investigation, first reported last week by Time magazine’s Web site, as “laughable,” and no evidence has surfaced of any quid pro quo, or even any Harman effort to influence Justice. A Harman aide on Wednesday pointed to Negroponte and Chertoff’s presence at Harman’s home as further evidence that the inquiry couldn’t possibly have been a serious one. “It makes no sense,” said the aide, who asked not to be identified while talking about sensitive matters. “If there was a serious investigation going on, and there were concerns about Jane Harman’s reliability and intentions, why would the administration agree to send these two heavy hitters?”
One explanation could be that the reported Harman probe was on such a close hold that senior administration officials attending last month’s dinner never even knew about the inquiry. Chertoff, who was chief of the Justice Department’s criminal division between 2001 and 2003, “was not aware of an investigation at that time” and only learned about the “alleged investigation” when it became public a few days ago, a spokesman told NEWSWEEK on Wednesday.
A senior law-enforcement official said that Harman “has been looked at in a very preliminary level” because officials are obligated to pursue tips when they come into the Justice Department. But while describing the investigation as “not particularly well developed,” the official added that “it’s not closed.”
But another explanation, the one preferred by Harman’s allies, is that leaks about the probe were part of a political effort to discredit her and to divert attention from what they believe is the real issue: a web of influence peddling and corruption in national-security contracting that has tainted the House Intelligence Committee itself. The key, they say, is timing. Harman, in recent weeks, has been engaged in an intense and increasingly bitter battle with Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Pete Hoekstra, a Republican from Michigan, over the release of an internal report on the activities of Duke Cunningham, the former California Republican congressman and member of the Intelligence Committee who resigned last year after pleading guilty to accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes. When Hoekstra refused to release a public executive summary of the report, Harman on her own two weeks ago released a copy and posted it on her Web site a move that infuriated Hoekstra and other GOP members of the committee.
The next day, Hoekstra unilaterally suspended Larry Hanauer , a Democratic staff member who reported to Harman, allegedly because of suspicions that Hanauer may have leaked a classified intelligence report on Iraq. (Hanauer has since denied in a sworn affidavit that he played any role in leaking the report, and Democrats have charged that the aide’s suspension was done as “retaliation” for Harman’s release of the Cunningham report.)
It was in the midst of this highly charged, and partisan, squabbling that the reports of the FBI investigation into Harman surfaced. They also came at a time that Pelosi, in line to be House Speaker if the Democrats win, was signaling she does not want Harman to be chairman of the intelligence panel; reports of a FBI probe into Harman would presumably give Pelosi cover to deny the chairmanship to Harman—a moderate Democrat whom Pelosi feels has not been aggressive enough in challenging the Bush administration.
Obscured amid the charges and countercharges is the important new information on the Cunningham investigation included in the Intelligence Committee report, prepared by a special counsel and released by Harman. One was the conclusion by the special counsel, Michael Stern, that the House Intelligence Committee staff had ignored numerous “red flags” that Cunningham was using his position on the panel to steer Pentagon intelligence contracts to one of the contractors, Mitch Wade, who was paying him bribes. (Wade has since pled guilty to bribing Cunningham. ) The red flags included “frequently expressed questions about the ethics and integrity of Wade” and “doubts about the value of the project” that Cunningham was directing to Wade’s company, according to the report.
The other new element was the special counsel’s call for further investigation into the award of large CIA contracts to yet another unidentified company. Federal sources and lawyers close to the case—who asked not to be identified talking about classified matters—tell NEWSWEEK that the unidentified company in the report is Global Transportation Systems (GTS), a Virginia-based shipping broker whose president, Richard Wenzel, has emerged as a potentially key witness in ongoing federal investigations into political influence peddling that have grown out of the Cunningham case, the sources said.
In January 2004, according to investigative blogger Laura Rozen , Wenzel and his company hired as Washington lobbyists a company affiliated with Brent Wilkes, a San Diego businessman who has been named as an unindicated co-conspirator in the Cunningham case. The committee report also describes a private dinner at a fancy Washington restaurant attended by Wenzel, Wilkes, former top CIA official Kyle (Dusty) Foggo and a House Intelligence Committee staffer apparently seeking a job from Wenzel. (Lawyers for Foggo and Wilkes have denied any wrongdoing by their clients. Wenzel could not be reached for comment.) The clear suggestion in the committee counsel's report is that these alleged cozy relationships among congressional staffers and government officials may have distorted national-security contracting and cost the taxpayers millions of dollars—issues that are potentially more serious than the low-priority probe of Harman or her political feuds with her House colleagues.