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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The media's sudden intense interest in the House Intelligence Committee

The New Republic's Michael Crowley last night noticed something about Jane Harman that has evaded most Beltway commentators, including those who have suddenly developed such a bizarre and uncharacteristic interest in the issue of who will lead the House Intelligence Committee:

In the debate over which Democrat should lead the House Intelligence Committe, Alcee Hastings has endured a lot of well-deserved scrutiny lately. But it's only fair to note that Jane Harman wasn't exactly a lantern in the darkness in the runup to the Iraq war:

"There's a strong intelligence case that Iraq has not destroyed its weapons of mass destruction and is building the capability to use them," said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House intelligence committee. "There's a growing al Qaeda presence in Iraq, and I think the case can be made that there is a growing affiliation" between Baghdad and terrorist groups.

Growing al Qaeda presence? I knew that Harman supported the war. I hadn't realized quite how much bad intel she swallowed whole.

Harman has swallowed much more than just "bad intel" on Iraq. For instance, when it was revealed that the President was eavesdropping on Americans without warrants -- i.e. , in violation of the law -- Harman immediately became, far and away, the most prominent and vocal Democratic defender of the President's law-breaking, enabling Time Magazine to say this on January 3, 2006 -- just two weeks after the Times reported on the law-breaking, when impressions were still forming among Americans as to how grave of a scandal this was:

G.O.P. strategists argue that Democrats have little leeway to attack on the issue because it could make them look weak on national security and because some of their leaders were briefed about the National Security Agency (NSA) no-warrant surveillance before it became public knowledge.

Some key Democrats even defend it. Says California's Jane Harman, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee: "I believe the program is essential to U.S. national security and that its disclosure has damaged critical intelligence capabilities."

In February of this year, Harman went on Meet the Press and -- echoing the sentiments of the GOP Senate and House Committee Chairmen, Pat Roberts and Pete Hoekstra -- she again emphasized, proudly, her "support" for the President's NSA warrantless eavesdropping program ("The briefings were about the operational details of the program. I support the program, I’ve never flinched from that"). Worse, while defending the President's lawbreaking, she heaped blame on The New York Times for reporting on the Leader's illegal conduct, saying: ". . . the leak to The New York Times that triggered things—and by the way, I deplore that leak" and:

This is not a covert action program, this is a very valuable foreign collection program, and I’m—I think it is tragic that a lot of our capability is now across the pages of the newspapers.

All of that led her to declare how receptive she was to a criminal investigation into the Times for reporting this story:

If the press was part of the process of delivering classified information, I think there have to be some limits on press immunity. . . . Well, it’s not clear it was a whistleblower. You have to prove that first. No. The answer is if it’s protected under the whistleblower statute, then it’s protected. Goss in his op-ed said he was trying to protect whistleblowers, but these were despicable people going around the process.

So Harman has a history of defending the administration's illegal intelligence activities. She was among the most gullible and/or deceitful when it came to disseminating the administration's most extreme (and most inaccurate) intelligence claims to "justify" the invasion of Iraq. She supports the administration's efforts to criminally investigate, if not prosecute, journalists who reveal illegal intelligence activities on the part of the President (including illegal activities about which Harman knew but said nothing).

Given her position as ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, Harman was repeatedly used by the administration -- with her consent -- as a potent instrument to shield itself from scrutiny, by creating the "Responsible Democrat" (Harman, Lieberman) v. "Irresponsible Democrat" dichotomy and then arguing that they enjoyed bipartisan support from the Good, Sensible Democrats like Harman. That's why, just like Joe Lieberman, Harman's most vociferous defenders are the most extreme Bush followers and neoconservatives. It is their agenda whom she promotes (which is why they defend her).

In light of that history, why would anyone think that Nancy Pelosi should choose Jane Harman to be the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, a key position for exercising desperately-needed oversight over the administration's last two years of intelligence mischief and, as importantly, for investigating and exposing the administration's past misconduct? She instinctively supports, or at least acquieses to, the administration's excesses, and would be among the worst choices Pelosi could make.

Despite all of that, the mindless, petty Beltway media parrots continue to recite the adolescent-minded script that Pelosi is a vindictive, unserious and egomaniacal "girl" because she won't bestow Jane Harman with the Chair of the Intelligence Committee. To read this new column in U.S. News and World Report by Gloria Borger is like looking through a high-powered microscope at virtually every Beltway media disease. It is all there in its vapid, gory emptiness. Titled "The Lady of the House," it begins this way:

Women recognize that kind of smile: pasted, forced, painful. When it appears-say, to hide heartbreak or sadness-there's a natural sympathy, even admiration, for the spirit of the woman wearing it. But when the soon-to-be Madame Speaker emerged from a closed-door Democratic caucus recently wearing that anguished grin, there was none of that friendly sense of embrace. None whatsoever.

Instead, there was mostly this question: What was the woman thinking? That we would simply accept the toothy smile as evidence of her newfound comity with Steny Hoyer, the new majority leader whom she had just attempted to knock off? That we would think it was a good idea to make her maiden leadership power play-in supporting Jack Murtha over her foe Steny Hoyer for the job-an act of revenge instead of reconciliation? That the woman about to become the first female speaker of the House was smart to look like a girl eager to "get back" at the guy she didn't like?

All of this merely because Pelosi preferred one of her allies who agrees with her opposition to the Iraq war over someone who is not her ally and who spouts Washington establishment-ese on every issue, including the war. For the oh-so-critical position of House Majority Leader.

How, asks Borgor now, can Pelosi possibly recover from such a catastrophe and prove that she's not a silly girl and that she's not "acting like the second coming of George McGovern"? By appointing the pro-war, Washington Establishment-ese-spewing Jane Harman as House Intelligence Chair, of course:

Tacky. And divided on the best way to end the war. Pelosi has taken sides: She supports the Murtha withdraw-now scenario. And she's about to demote her more moderate fellow Californian, Jane Harman-denying her the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee, even kicking her off the panel. Why demote Harman?

If it's a policy dispute over the war, why not welcome Harman's voice-generally regarded as credible, even if it veers from the liberal line? If it's a personal dispute, get over it. Any member of the California delegation will tell you that the two women don't get along-and that both have probably been right over the years. But if you're speaker, why demean your exalted position by engaging in a publicly ugly, even tacky, fight? Particularly when the possible alternative to Harman is Alcee Hastings of Florida, once impeached by the Senate for ethical lapses.

This is all mindless, baseless mental garbage that Borger is spewing because all of the people like her are spewing the same thing. There is no seniority on the Intelligence Committee, so Harman is not being "demoted" by being "denied" this seat. Hastings is not the "alternative," since Pelosi can choose anyone she wants and, as far as I know, has never said that the "alternative" to Harman is Hastings. The media has just invented this dichotomy in order to foster the drama of the Serious/Substantive v. Frivolous/Bitchy choice they have decreed is what Pelosi must navigate.

At first I thought that the media's obsession with smearing Pelosi was some combination of its adolescent cravings for cattle-like demonization of the unpopular, loser Democrats, combined with the surprisingly (at least to me) strong and obvious discomfort with a woman being this politically powerful in her own right, not dependent upon appointments or derivative popularity from political spouses. And there is definitely a lot of that driving this chatter.

But now I believe that what is really responsible for this amazing obsession with undermining Nancy Pelosi before she even starts -- over matters as seemingly irrelevant (in the grand scheme of things) as Steny Hoyer and Jane Harman, no less -- is that institutionalized Beltway personalities fear a repudiation of the rotten system on which they depend and of which they are such integral parts.

They were so petrified by the possible rejection of Hoyer in favor of the anti-war Murtha because that would have been viewed by them as a repudiation of their brand of Serious Washington Centrism -- the disease which enabled the Bush administration and brought us this war. It would have meant that those who continue to prop up this war and this administration, either actively or passively, are going to suffer a loss of prestige and credibility. And that is exactly why it is so important to them that Jane Harman become House Intelligence Chair and why Pelosi's refusal to allow that will unleash even more hostility towards her.

There is nothing "credible" about Harman. Yes, she is smart and knowledgeable, but she has been wrong about everything that matters, particularly in the intelligence area. But she was wrong in exactly the same way that the Beltway geniuses and The New Republic and David Broder and Fred Hiatt were wrong. For that reason, they don't want her to be repudiated and rejected because that would constitute a repudiation and rejection of them. So they build up and glorify the "credible," responsible Harman because she represents them, and they hate Pelosi in advance for rejecting Harman for being wrong about everything because they feel rejected by that choice.

As a result, Pelosi and her opposition to Harman have to be belittled and removed from the substantive arena. Harman supported the most disastrous strategic decision in our nation's history and repeatedly defended the administration's worst excesses. That ought to be disqualifying on its face. But the Beltway media are guilty of the same crimes, so they want to pretend that Harman -- just like Steny Hoyer -- did nothing wrong and the only reason not to anoint her to her Rightful Place is because of petty, womanly personality disputes that have no place in the public arena.

For the same reason, they decree that Pelosi must prove that she's a "responsible" and serious leader. How does she do that? By embracing the Beltway establishment types, including those -- especially those -- who have been so wrong about so many things.

That's why the media has taken such an intense interest in the otherwise mundane matter of who will be House Majority Leader and House Intelligence Chair. Jane Harman, like Steny Hoyer, is the symbol of official Washington, the broken, rotted, corrupt Washington that propped up this war and enabled this administration in so many ways. Pelosi has to prove that she's one of them, or else suffer the consequences of being mauled and scorned.

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