Harman, 65, a tireless advocate in Congress of both the U.S.-Israel relationship and of strengthening the intelligence community’s capabilities, is quitting Congress to become the director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The center, established by Congress in 1968 as the official memorial of the 28th president, calls itself a “neutral forum for open, serious, and informed dialogue.”
It’s a dramatic switch for a deft political infighter known equally for her fiercely close friendships and her hard-fought enmities.
In an anguished letter Monday explaining her sudden resignation to her Los Angeles, Calif., constituents, Harman hinted at her frustration with an increasingly polarized Congress.
“I have always believed that the best solutions to tough problems require a bipartisan approach, and bipartisanship is the Center’s ‘brand,’ ” she wrote. “Serving at its helm provides unique opportunities to involve the House and Senate, top experts, and world leaders in ‘great debates’ about the most pressing foreign and domestic policy matters.”
Harman’s departure, which will come in a few weeks but was made official Tuesday, signaled the precarious position of the Democratic Party’s center.
Harman is the only Jewish lawmaker in the Blue Dog caucus, representing the party’s more conservative wing. The caucus was gutted in the last election when Republicans, in a winning strategy, targeted Democrats in conservative districts.
Democrats are now leaning further left, and the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives has not shown much interest in bipartisanship, leaving the Blue Dog rump — used to being the much-valued bridge between the parties — in the cold. One signal of the diminishment of conservative Democrats was the announcement this week that the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist body that once was a powerhouse in the party, is closing down due to a lack of interest.
Harman, who is married to Newsweek owner and philanthropist Sidney Harman, was a leadership council member.
Harman’s more conservative tendencies have been apparent in fiscal and foreign policy. On social issues — abortion, gay rights and women’s rights — she has been an unabashed liberal, scoring high marks from the National Council of Jewish Women.
In 1998, Harman interrupted her congressional career, launched six years earlier, to run for California governor as the self-described “best Republican” among Democrats, pledging a balanced budget. She lost to Gray Davis and returned to Congress in 2000.
In that setting, her hard-line reputation was made in foreign policy. She backed the Iraq war, and as the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, backed the expanded eavesdropping powers used by the Bush administration. Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general in 2004, asked Harman to make the case to The New York Times against revealing the program; she tried and failed.
Harman is beloved by the pro-Israel lobby and is a sure-bet appearance at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference. Her departure earned an unusually effusive statement of regret from AIPAC director Howard Kohr.
“As a strong advocate for joint U.S.-Israeli Homeland Security cooperation, both nations are now better equipped to keep their citizens and borders secure,” Kohr said in a statement to JTA. “Her expertise in intelligence, national security and foreign policy has enabled her to make a significant and meaningful contribution toward ensuring that America stands with Israel in its quest for peace and security.”
He credited Harman with being instrumental in ensuring that Israel received annual security assistance and funding for missile defense systems. It was that AIPAC-intelligence nexus that involved Harman in a scandal-that-wasn’t in April 2009, when her support for expanded eavesdropping powers came back to bite her.
Intelligence officials leaked to the media a taped 2005 conversation between Harman and what they described as an “Israeli agent.” The “agent” asked Harman to intervene in the case of two former AIPAC staffers who had been charged with handling classified information.
Harman agreed to “waddle” into the matter, “if you think it will make a difference,” according to the reports. The “agent” then said he would advocate on her behalf to keep Harman in her spot as the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.
Harman said, “This conversation doesn’t exist” and hung up.
Nothing in the conversation had showed Harman agreeing to such a quid pro quo, and her last sentence — with nary a goodbye — could be read either as a plea to keep the chat secret or an angry sign-off fueled by the recognition that the “agent” was trying to co-opt her.
There was never any evidence that Harman had intervened in the process. Harman was outraged that her calls had been taped and demanded the full release of the tape.
She spoke to JTA at the time in an interview that encapsulated her image as a tough talker.
“I used the word ‘outrage’ twice in my letter, which I wrote this morning standing in my kitchen drinking cappuccino,” Harman said. “Three anonymous sources, former national security officials, are selectively leaking portions of an alleged intercept about which I knew nothing.”
Justice Department officials emphasized that Harman was not under scrutiny, and a development in the government case against the AIPAC officials just a week or so later cast the leaks in a light that did not flatter the leakers: The government dropped the case for lack of evidence, and the “scandal” seemed like a desperate last-ditch bid to keep the case alive.
What no one denied is that Haim Saban, the Israeli-American entertainment magnate who is also a major AIPAC donor, lobbied then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2006 to keep Harman on the committee. The Democrats won control of the House that year. Had Harman stayed, she would have achieved a career pinnacle: chairwoman of one of the House’s most powerful and secretive committees.
Pelosi, however, insisted on moving Harman off the committee according to rules that Pelosi had helped set when she was ranking Democrat on the committee in the 1990s: Pelosi was adamant that an extended stay on the committee could lead to members becoming co-opted by the intelligence community.
That, as it happened, was not an issue for Harman. While she was beloved by the intelligence community for advocating for expanded eavesdropping powers and increased funding, she was not afraid to make waves.
Harman earned the enmity of Porter Goss, the former committee chairman who became CIA director, first by making clear her opposition to “enhanced” interrogation techniques, and then by linking Goss’ associates to a bribe-taking scandal. (Some analysts said Goss, seeking revenge, seemed to be behind the AIPAC leaks.)
Harman’s willingness to put friends in the hot seat was evident as well in her dealings with Israel. The WikiLeaks trove of State Department cables leaked late last year showed Harman giving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a hard time in a 2009 meeting over his two signature issues: settlement expansion and accelerating confrontation with Iran. Harman also agreed to sponsor the first conference, in 2009, of J Street, the “pro-peace, pro-Israel” lobby that arose in part to counter AIPAC’s influence.
Harman’s pro-Israel posture, however, led to two primary challenges from Marcy Winograd, a Jewish activist who advocates a single Israeli-Palestinian state. Harman easily defeated Winograd in 2008 and 2010.