Why Won't Gonzales Deny He Killed Harman-AIPAC Probe?

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 10:45 AM EDT

If you had been falsely accused of doing something outrageous, wouldn't you declare you had done no such thing?

Everyone is entitled to a presumption of innocence--at least in a courtroom--but it is certainly suspicious that former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has not denied the most recent allegations against him. My CQ colleague Jeff Stein reported late Sunday night that Gonzales had blocked a preliminary FBI investigation into Democratic Representative Jane Harman, who had been captured by NSA eavesdroppers telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would try to use her clout to lessen espionage-related charges filed against two AIPAC officials. In return for her assistance, the suspected Israeli agent reportedly offered to help Harman become chair of the House intelligence committee. On Tuesday, The New York Times confirmed much of the story--including the piece about Gonzales: that the then-AG killed the inquiry because Harman, then the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, could help the Bush administration defend its use of warrantless wiretaps.

So there are two lines of inquiry that official investigators ought to follow. First, whether Harman broke the law by offering to lean on the criminal investigation of AIPAC for help in advancing her career. (The Times reports that the suspected Israeli agent promised that media mogul Haim Saban would threaten to hold back donations to Rep. Nancy Pelosi if she did not award Harman the top slot on the intelligence committee; Saban's spokesperson did not respond to the Times' request for comment.) Second, whether Gonzales stopped a criminal investigation because the target (Harman) could help the Bush administration. Harman has put out a very carefully-worded denial that's full of holes. Gonzales, though, hasn't said anything. That's not very reassuring. Shouldn't a former attorney general be able to declare that he never halted an investigation as a favor to a lawmaker who was doing the administration a favor? If not, there's a problem--and a problem (no matter Barack Obama's penchant for leaving the past behind) deserving a thorough examination by someone with subpoena power.

These are both major scandals--and, alas, they are linked. Democrats on the Hill might welcome another opportunity to pursue Gonzales, but they are not going to be eager to chase after Harman, even though she is not the most popular among House Democrats. Hill Republicans who would love to see a Democrat caught in an ethics investigation may not be eager to give Dems more reason to investigate Gonzales and the Bushies. And FOIs--friends of Israel--on both sides of the aisle will not be enthusiastic about any probe that could depict a lawmaker as a tool of AIPAC and Israel. (On Monday, Pelosi said nothing about the Harman-AIPAC-Gonzales story.)

Justice Department internal investigators certainly have the standing to probe what happened with Gonzales and the Harman investigation. They may not care that much about Harman, but an investigation of Gonzales cannot get too far without a determination of what Harman said (to the suspected Israeli agent) and did (regarding the AIPAC prosecution). Meanwhile, congressional sources tell me that Hill people are wondering how many other members of Congress have held conversations that have been collected by the NSA.

With the Times picking up Stein's story, the whole thing has gone mainstream. (Not that CQ isn't mainstream.) As I noted yesterday, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington quickly sent requests to the Office of Congressional Ethics and the Justice Department for investigations. But someone is going to have to raise a fuss on Capitol Hill or within the executive branch for anything to happen. This double quid-pro-quo tale is truly a bipartisan embarrassment--and that's the best protection Harman and Gonzales could have.

This was first posted at CQPolitics.com.