Rep. Jane Harman, the California Democrat with a longtime involvement in intelligence issues, was overheard on an NSA wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department to reduce espionage-related charges against two officials of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel organization in Washington.
Harman was recorded saying she would "waddle into" the AIPAC case "if you think it'll make a difference," according to two former senior national security officials familiar with the NSA transcript.
In exchange for Harman's help, the sources said, the suspected Israeli agent pledged to help lobby Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., then-House minority leader, to appoint Harman chair of the Intelligence Committee after the 2006 elections, which the Democrats were heavily favored to win.
Seemingly wary of what she had just agreed to, according to an official who read the NSA transcript, Harman hung up after saying, "This conversation doesn't exist."
Harman declined to discuss the wiretap allegations, instead issuing an angry denial through a spokesman.
"These claims are an outrageous and recycled canard, and have no basis in fact," Harman said in a prepared statement. "I never engaged in any such activity. Those who are peddling these false accusations should be ashamed of themselves."
It's true that allegations of pro-Israel lobbyists trying to help Harman get the chairmanship of the intelligence panel by lobbying and raising money for Pelosi aren't new.
They were widely reported in 2006, along with allegations that the FBI launched an investigation of Harman that was eventually dropped for a "lack of evidence."
What is new is that Harman is said to have been picked up on a court-approved NSA tap directed at alleged Israel covert action operations in Washington.
And that, contrary to reports that the Harman investigation was dropped for "lack of evidence," it was Alberto R. Gonzales, President Bush's top counsel and then attorney general, who intervened to stop the Harman probe.
Why? Because, according to three top former national security officials, Gonzales wanted Harman to be able to help defend the administration's warrantless wiretapping program, which was about break in The New York Times and engulf the White House.
As for there being "no evidence" to support the FBI probe, a source with first-hand knowledge of the wiretaps called that "bull****."
"I read those transcripts," said the source, who like other former national security officials familiar with the transcript discussed it only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of domestic NSA eavesdropping.
"It's true," added another former national security official who was briefed on the NSA intercepts involving Harman. "She was on there."
Such accounts go a long way toward explaining not only why Harman was denied the gavel of the House Intelligence Committee, but failed to land a top job at the CIA or Homeland Security Department in the Obama administration.
Gonzales said through a spokesman that he would have no comment on the allegations in this story.
The identity of the "suspected Israeli agent" could not be determined with certainty, and officials were extremely skittish about going beyond Harman's involvement to discuss other aspects of the NSA eavesdropping operation against Israeli targets, which remain highly classified.
But according to the former officials familiar with the transcripts, the alleged Israeli agent asked Harman if she could use any influence she had with Gonzales, who became attorney general in 2005, to get the charges against the AIPAC officials reduced to lesser felonies.
Rosen had been charged with two counts of conspiring to communicate, and commnicating national defense information to people not entitled to receive it. Weissman was charged with conspiracy.
AIPAC dismissed the two in May 2005, about five months before the events here unfolded.
Harman responded that Gonzales would be a difficult task, because he "just follows White House orders," but that she might be able to influence lesser officials, according to an official who read the transcript.
Justice Department attorneys in the intelligence and public corruption units who read the transcripts decided that Harman had committed a "completed crime," a legal term meaning that there was evidence that she had attempted to complete it, three former officials said.
And they were prepared to open a case on her, which would include electronic surveillance approved by the so-called FISA Court, the secret panel established by the 1979 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to hear government wiretap requests.
First, however, they needed the certification of top intelligence officials that Harman's wiretapped conversations justified a national security investigation.
Then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss reviewed the Harman transcript and signed off on the Justice Department's FISA application. He also decided that, under a protocol involving the separation of powers, it was time to notify then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Minority Leader Pelosi, of the FBI's impending national security investigation of a member of Congress - to wit, Harman.
Goss, a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, deemed the matter particularly urgent because of Harman's rank as the panel's top Democrat.
But that's when, according to knowledgeable officials, Attorney General Gonzales intervened.
According to two officials privy to the events, Gonzales said he "needed Jane" to help support the administration's warrantless wiretapping program, which was about to be exposed by the New York Times.
Harman, he told Goss, had helped persuade the newspaper to hold the wiretap story before, on the eve of the 2004 elections. And although it was too late to stop the Times from publishing now, she could be counted on again to help defend the program
He was right.
On Dec. 21, 2005, in the midst of a firestorm of criticism about the wiretaps, Harman issued a statement defending the operation and slamming the Times, saying, "I believe it essential to U.S. national security, and that its disclosure has damaged critical intelligence capabilities."
Pelosi and Hastert never did get the briefing.
And thanks to grateful Bush administration officials, the investigation of Harman was effectively dead.
Many people want to keep it that way.
Goss declined an interview request, and the CIA did not respond to a request to interview former Director Michael V. Hayden , who was informed of the Harman transcripts but chose to take no action, two knowledgeable former officials alleged.
Likewise, the first director of national intelligence, former ambassador John D. Negroponte, was opposed to an FBI investigation of Harman, according to officials familiar with his thinking, and let the matter die. (Negroponte was traveling last week and did not respond to questions relayed to him through an assistant.)
Harman dodged a bullet, say disgusted former officials who have pursued the AIPAC case for years. She was protected by an administration desperate for help.
"It's the deepest kind of corruption," said a recently retired longtime national security official who was closely involved in AIPAC investigation, "which was years in the making.
"It's a story about the corruption of government - not legal corruption necessarily, but ethical corruption."
Ironically, however, nothing much was gained by it.
The Justice Department did not back away from charging AIPAC officials Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman with espionage (for allegedly giving classified Pentagon documents to Israeli officials).
Gonzales was engulfed by the NSA warrantless wiretapping scandal.
And Jane Harman was relegated to chairing a House Homeland Security subcommittee.