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Jane Harman’s resignation is CIA’s loss

February 8, 2011

Spy Talk, 7 Feb 2011: There have to be some misty eyes at the CIA and the other spook redoubts around the city over news of Jane Harman’s resignation.

The feisty California Democrat was such a good friend to the spy agency, no matter the occasional bumping of heads over torture, that it gave her a medal in 2007.

“Jane’s brand of oversight was unique as she is — perceptive, constructive, active,” Michael V. Hayden, the CIA director at the time,said at a luncheon honoring Harman, who is leaving Congress to run the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which specializes in national security issues.

Active, indeed. “I live and breathe security 24-7,” she once told The Washington Post.

Not only is the CIA (and other U.S. spy agencies) losing a steadfast friend in Congress, it’s losing an ally with seniority and deep knowledge of their workings, no matter that she is no longer ranking Democrat on the intelligence panel. None of the candidates lining up to succeed Harman in her liberal Los Angeles district, moreover, has anything like her experience with, much less an affection for, the intelligence agencies.

“She’s on a first-name basis with many of our chiefs overseas, and when something was happening — good or bad — she would pick up the phone to see what they needed, ask about their families, and the families of their officers,” Hayden said at the luncheon.

 

Harman called her decision to resign “excruciating, because the distinction of representing the smartest constituents on earth will never be surpassed — nor will my relationships with my exceptional staff and colleagues in Congress.”

But Harman’s pain had begun four years earlier, when Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi rebuffed her bid to chair the intelligence committee. Her willingness to work closely with Republicans on security issues also didn’t help with the incoming Obama administration, where she hoped to land a top intelligence job. Instead, she was consigned to the relative Siberia of the homeland security committee.

Along the way, she was buffeted by a spy scandal of her own, whenSpyTalk, and then other media outlets, reported that she had been overheard on a national security wiretap making promises to a suspected Israeli agent to lobby Bush administration officials in an espionage case involving officials at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Harman denied the allegations. But under probing questioning by NPR’s Robert Siegel, her explanations were more couched.

“No. I can’t recall with any specificity a conversation I may have had four years ago. . .” she said. “But here’s the problem, Robert — and I’m going to try and get this across again. These are selective leaks. They are quoting — allegedly quoting me — maybe out of context based on transcripts that these people say they’ve seen.”

With Republicans now ruling the roost, of course, the future held little promise for Harman, who was once touted as candidate variously to run the CIA, Directorate of National Intelligence or the Department of Homeland Security. It was a good time to go.

“Petite, blond, elegant in a nubby suit, a vaguely patrician accent hinting at her Harvard Law School and Smith College education, Jane Harman has a polished, camera-ready exterior, but an inner core of grit, discipline, and unquenched ambition,” a profiler once wrote in Mother Jones.

In her new job as president and CEO of the Wilson Center, she’s getting a new platform and megaphone to return to her first love, the spies.

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