Sometimes in Washington, what is most scandalous is the attempt to create a scandal where none exists.
Let me give you a current example.
Maybe you’ve heard about an allegation of scandal against Jane Harman, the California Democrat who served with great distinction on the House Select Committee on Intelligence until Nancy Pelosi gave her the heave-ho.
The story is almost insanely complicated. But the deeper you delve into the details, the more you see that if there is any wrongdoing in the case, it was done by Harman’s accusers.
Elements within the FBI and other U.S. agencies have been convinced for years that Israeli spy agencies have penetrated the U.S. government. These anti-Israel elements responded with what spy types call a “mole hunt”—a ferocious search for the suspected infiltrator. Again and again, the search has turned up empty. But from the point of view of a mole hunter, nothing is more damning than the absence of evidence: The inability to discover the mole only proves the mole’s vicious cunning!
Then, at last, in October 2005 the mole hunters found their man: a career Defense Department employee named Larry Franklin. Franklin’s offense? Brace yourself …
Franklin had learned of U.S. intelligence reports that Iranian sabotage teams were operating inside Iraqi Kurdistan. These reports were being disregarded for a reason very familiar in the Bush years: They contained uncomfortable news that higher-ups did not wish to know.
Franklin, however, thought the information important—maybe vitally important. He thought it needed to be pushed up the organization chart. Lacking the clout to move the information himself, he decided to do what frustrated officials often do: He leaked it.
Specifically, he leaked the information to two employees—American citizens both—of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in the hope that they could galvanize a response from their contacts in the White House. The two, Steve Rosen and Kenneth Weissman, shared Franklin’s information with journalists, colleagues, and the Israeli embassy.
For this action, all three were charged with criminal offenses. Investigators squeezed Franklin’s point of vulnerability: He had a seriously ill wife and could not afford the loss of his government health-care coverage. He pleaded guilty to mishandling classified information and was sentenced to almost 13 years in prison. Rosen and Weissman go to trial in June for violating the Espionage Act of 1917.
Two months after Franklin’s sentencing, another leak of classified information hit the newspapers. On Dec. 16, 2005, The New York Times reported the existence of a vast, unknown National Security Agency program to intercept foreign electronic communications.
Unlike the Franklin leak, which was intended to jolt an unwilling bureaucracy into action to defend the country, the Times leak was intended (by the leakers) to sabotage a program integral to that defense. The leak lethally compromised a vital intelligence-collection effort. In terms of its direct and immediate usefulness to America’s enemies, the Times story may count as the worst betrayal of vital national information in a generation.
Needless to say, nobody has ever been prosecuted for that or for any of the other leaks that have done actual damage to American security since 9/11, such as The Washington Post leak that revealed the locations of prisons in which high-value al Qaida detainees were being held.
The stories of these two leaks converged in Jane Harman’s office.
The Franklin prosecution appalled and disturbed many people who care intensely about national security. A campaign was launched to help raise awareness of the Franklin case. Sometime in October 2005, a call was placed by a Franklin supporter to Harman. (This as-yet-unnamed supporter is described in some accounts as a suspected Israeli agent; but by October 2005, of course, the anti-Franklin prosecutors were convinced that Washington was half-filled with Israeli agents.) The Franklin supporter offered Harman a political proposition: If she would take up the case of Franklin and the two AIPAC officials, the supporter would undertake to mobilize political support for Harman’s campaign to keep her job as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence committee.
Harman seems never to have acted on this proposition. But the fact that she had taken the call persuaded the mole-hunters that she, too, was part of the Israeli conspiracy in Washington. Department of Justice prosecutors determined to file charges against her. Those charges were promptly vetoed by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. He pointed out that Harman was working fiercely to persuade the Times not to publish the NSA intercept story. “We need Jane,” he said.
There’s no evidence of a deal or trade between Harman and Gonzales. No suggestion that she was motivated to lobby the Times for reasons other than her own initiative. No suggestion that Harman’s actions stemmed from anything except a public-spirited effort to stop a newspaper from compromising the country’s security in order to achieve the thrill of a scoop.
And yet for acting public-spiritedly and responsibly, Jane Harman is now being treated like some kind of corrupt dealmaker.
In fact, this whole bundle of stories is one in which the designated targets of outrage are those who have behaved well—while those who behaved badly escape entirely.
Franklin’s leak intended to safeguard the nation? Espionage.
The Times’ leak that intensely damaged the nation? A prize-winner.
Harman’s deal-making to keep her highly deserved seat on the Intel committee? A scandal.
Nancy Pelosi’s dealmaking to force Harman off and replace her with either Alcee Hastings (a former federal judge impeached on corruption charges) or the very lightly knowledgeable Silvester Reyes? Business as usual.
The “Israel Lobby’s” support for Franklin and Harman and other hawkish Democrats? A sinister conspiracy of intergalactic proportions.
The anti-Israel mole-hunters’ eagerness to prosecute Franklin and give a pass to the many more damaging leakers who have done actual harm to the country? Solid policework.
We have here a situation in which patriots are being treated like traitors—while people who have done the country more harm than many traitors are being treated like patriots.
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