Harman Trades ‘Blood Sport’ of Politics for Scholarly Center

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During nearly two decades in Congress, former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) — now head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars — established herself as a forceful player in the rough-and-tumble game of Washington politics.

The Harvard Law School graduate and moderate Democrat racked up nine re-election wins in her conservative-leaning Southern California House district and gained a reputation as a national leader on intelligence and defense issues. After Sept. 11, 2001, Harman became a fixture on "Meet the Press" and other high-profile news shows and was sometimes cited as a potential CIA director or secretary of defense.

But the stylish congresswoman's ambition sometimes exacted a political price.

Harman incurred the wrath of liberal Democrats when she supported elements of President George W. Bush's post-Sept. 11 domestic surveillance program. A scandal involving espionage, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and Harman briefly threatened to derail her career. And when Democrats won the U.S. House in 2006, Harman found that her quest to become chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee was stymied by her frosty relationship with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

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Photo: David Hawxhurst / Wilson Center
Jane Harman

Despite the setbacks, Harman appeared to be cruising to a 10th term in office when she abruptly resigned her seat in February 2011. Sensing she had accomplished all she could in an increasingly polarized Congress, Harman simply bowed out. But while Harman left Congress, she didn't quit the Washington policy game. Instead, she accepted an appointment as the first female director, president and CEO of the Wilson Center, a congressionally chartered think tank that aims to marry politics and scholarship in the quest for better public policies.

Since taking the helm, Harman has recruited her high-powered friends to speak at the center, reinvigorated its role in international affairs, and worked to raise the profile of female heads of state around the globe.

"This was an opportunity I couldn't refuse," said Harman, looking typically tanned and relaxed during an interview in her spacious, light-filled office on the top floor of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in the heart of downtown Washington. A green surfboard — a gift from a former constituent in California — rests in a corner of Harman's office, adding a splash of vibrant color to the immaculate white lines of the room.

"I'm one of those politicians in exile now, but I'm enjoying a chance to catch my breath," Harman told The Diplomat. "The opportunity to think more deeply about issues and be in a nonpartisan space was irresistible."

The Wilson Center, as it's frequently referred to in short, is a public policy organization that allows scholars and policy experts to research topics of national and international importance. The center received about $10 million in tax dollars in 2011, and took in slightly more than half that amount from private foundations and other donors. It aims to reflect the ideals of Woodrow Wilson, the nation's only Ph.D.-holding president. Wilson preferred calm, well-researched decision making over immediately decisive, emotional actions.

"It provides the safest political space in this town," Harman said of the Wilson Center. "It's a place where both parties can come and have serious conversations and a place where the preeminent scholars in the world can come and do real research. The combination of scholarship and policy is what Woodrow Wilson stood for."

During her time on the Hill, Harman was a major player in security-related issues, serving on all the major security committees: six years on the Armed Services Committee, eight years on Intelligence and four on Homeland Security. She also undertook numerous congressional fact-finding missions to hotspots around the world, including North Korea, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Guantanamo Bay.

Harman was taken aback when her interviewer suggested that her new job doesn't occupy the same front-and-center position on the Washington stage as a seat in Congress. The stage may be different, she suggested, but it's still one on which she is prominently perched.

"I am in the action!" Harman retorted, enthusiastically. "I am in the action! I'm just back from observing the election in Egypt and participating in the World Economic Forum in Thailand."

In her wide-ranging Diplomat interview, Harman discussed an array of international issues, including the Obama administration's use of drones in Pakistan, the presidential election in Egypt and her provocative view that Russia should allow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to live in exile there. She also defiantly addressed the controversies that dogged her in office.

In late May, Harman and Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) were among a team of international observers monitoring Egypt's first round of presidential elections following the fall of longtime head of state Hosni Mubarak.

Although the Wilson Center isn't known for election monitoring, Harman said she's been participating in the democratic tests since her days as a California lawyer in private practice in the 1980s.

"I think it's fascinating to see transitions to democracy," she said, noting that the "mechanics of the [Egyptian] election were very fair."

"There were some allegations [of irregularities] leading up to the election, but I didn't see that," she told us. "What I saw were long lines of men and women very excited to be voting for the first time in their lifetime for the president of their country."

"There were some allegations [of irregularities] leading up to the election, but I didn't see that," she told us. "What I saw were long lines of men and women very excited to be voting for the first time in their lifetime for the president of their country."

Harman — speaking before the June 17 election that seemed to usher the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi to the presidency, amid what many called a power grab by the military after the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court ordered the Islamist-led Parliament dissolved — downplayed the worries of many in the American foreign policy establishment that the conservative Muslim Brotherhood will dominate Egyptian politics.

"There is a lot of concern that if the Muslim Brotherhood has a majority in the Parliament and its candidate wins the presidential election, there really may not be room for expression of other points of view, " Harman conceded. "But we have to wait and see. Democracy doesn't exist without pluralism."

She said the emergence of Islamist political parties is "good news"

"There is a lot of concern that if the Muslim Brotherhood has a majority in the Parliament and its candidate wins the presidential election, there really may not be room for expression of other points of view, " Harman conceded. "But we have to wait and see. Democracy doesn't exist without pluralism."

She said the emergence of Islamist political parties is "good news"

"There are groups of people who hold strong views, and democracy is about the exchange of ideas and the free expression of views," Harman said. "And there are Islamist parties that are running for election under more or less fair rules.

"I'd much rather have them in the tent than have them outside, like al-Qaeda, trying to blow up the tent," Harman added. "I think the rise of Islamist parties is healthy."

Harman also has her own ideas about the violent conflict unfolding in Syria. In a March 30 op-ed in the Washington Post, Harman suggested that Syria's Bashar al-Assad might be willing to give up power and stop the massacre of his own people in exchange for asylum for himself and his family. She pointed out that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's exodus to New York for medical treatment allowed for the peaceful transition of power there. Now, although it remains unclear where Saleh is, he's at least not in power.

"Offering Assad immunity to get him out of Damascus may be the best of several less-than-ideal options for stopping the bloodshed in Syria," Harman wrote in the Post.

In her June Diplomat interview, Harman stood by her suggestion. She argued that such a move could help Russian President Vladimir Putin repair his international image, which she says was badly tarnished by irregularities and violence related to his own election this year. (Less than a week after The Diplomat's interview with Harman, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced her suspicion that Russia was supplying the Assad regime with high-powered assault helicopters.)

"We're choosing among bad alternatives and this is less bad than letting a massacre and a nascent civil war continue," Harman said, referring to her asylum proposal. "If there is a possibility of getting the Bashar family out of the country and structuring a reasonably stable government in their place, I think we, the enlightened world — a coalition of nations — ought to seize it.

"I'm not defending Bashar al-Assad in any way and I think he may shortly be indicted for crimes against humanity," Harman added. "But I'm still hopeful that Russia will seize an opportunity which is unique to Russia. It has been an arms provider and is an immediate neighbor and obviously a confidante of the Bashar family.

"I think this would be in Putin's interest to do," she continued. "If he wants to rehabilitate his image in the world community after what most view as a very flawed election in Russia, it would earn him some serious cred."

Harman dismissed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's suggestion that the U.S. government should arm the Syrian rebels battling Assad's minority regime.

"I think arming the rebels is problematic," she said. "I don't know who they are and where those arms will go. There already is a problem with some of the arms that were in the caches in Libya, and some of those provided from outside, resurfacing in other parts of the world.

"If al-Qaeda is part of the opposition in Syria, which we now believe it is, I can't imagine we'd want to give arms to al-Qaeda," she added.

Turning to the subject of Obama's overall foreign policy, Harman gave the president and his administration good grades — with a couple of caveats.

"There is no low hanging fruit in foreign policy anymore," she said. "The Arab awakening caught the whole world by surprise, including our intelligence community. Finding the right path through this is tough."

Harman noted that she refuses to refer to the revolutions in the Middle East as an "Arab Spring," saying the term is "too optimistic." She prefers "Arab awakening."

Meanwhile, the former congresswoman said Obama would benefit from a more open dialogue on controversial strategies like drone strikes in Pakistan.

"I think it needs to be well explained," Harman said. "If people pose an imminent threat to the safety of people in our country and they're impossible to capture, I think in limited circumstances with very clear rules it is OK to target them," she explained, noting that a drone wiped out al-Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al-Libi in early June.

"Our drone program is very carefully managed and it needs to be," she said. "It's not OK with me to operate it outside of some strict set of rules."

But who gets to determine those rules? That's one of the main arguments used by critics of the covert program, which they say is outside the bounds of domestic and international law. Harman says the drone program should be staged in a way that is accountable.

"We don't want to give license to other countries that will be able to perfect this technology to do whatever they want," she said, echoing another chief complaint of the program.

Harman said she also supports Obama's policy of coercive sanctions against Iran, with a military option remaining on the table, and backs a similar approach to North Korea with the added element of multiparty talks.

As the conversation turned to Harman's political travails in office, the former congresswoman was direct and defiant. In 2006, news reports said the Justice Department was investigating Harman after she was reportedly overheard on an NSA wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department to reduce espionage-related charges against two AIPAC officials, in return for the group's help securing the House Intelligence Committee chairmanship by raising money for Pelosi and lobbying for Harman.

The issue resurfaced in 2009 when Congressional Quarterly's Jeff Stein reported that the Harman investigation was dropped not because of a lack of evidence, but because then Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales intervened to stop the probe.

"Why? Because, according to three top former national security officials, Gonzales wanted Harman to be able to help defend the administration's warrantless wiretapping program, which was about to break in The New York Times and engulf the White House," Stein wrote.

Harman called the entire episode "a total political smear."

"The Justice Department said in writing I never was a target of, or subject of an investigation and so did the House Ethics Committee — in writing," she stressed.

So what was the motivation for the allegations and the reporting on the issue?

"Politics is a blood sport — that was the motivation as far as I know," Harman said. "I never got more information than that. It was a miserable experience to live through but I was re-elected five times afterward, so it obviously didn't impress the voters in my district."

Harman also took vigorous exception to a reporter's assertion that she "supported wireless wiretapping" during the Bush administration.

"That is not fair," Harman quickly countered. "I defended wiretapping consistent with strict rules. I was outraged when I learned that the terrorism surveillance program — which was revealed in an article in the New York Times — had not been conducted according to the law [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] that applied.

"I was extremely outspoken about it starting on the day I could talk about it and I worked with some others to amend FISA," she continued. "FISA is not a warrantless wiretapping law; it's not all wiretapping, it's not all wires — there are other ways to intercept communication."

Harman further explained that the FISA law has "strict rules for when you can intercept communications from foreigners or Americans."

"I don't call that warrantless and we had a very robust argument about that," she said.

But in his book, "Bush's Law: The Remaking of American Justice," New York Times investigative reporter Eric Lichtblau wrote that Harman "changed her tune" about warrantless wiretapping after a story about the Bush program broke in the New York Times in 2006. Harman was among those who had convinced the Times to hold the story for a year, he said.

"When the story broke publicly, she was among the first in line on Capitol Hill to denounce the administration's handling of the wiretapping program, declaring that what the NSA was doing could have been done under the existing FISA law," Lichtblau wrote.

Nevertheless, Harman insists she only supported surveillance under strict guidelines.

"No, I am not for warrantless wiretapping," Harman said. "It's a very sloppy and less than fully informed characterization of what many of us believed. There may be somebody out there who is for warrantless wiretapping, but I'm not in that group."

Harman's intense demeanor began to brighten as the interview returned to her work at the Wilson Center. She talked about a program celebrating female heads of state around the world that had been languishing under the center's previous directors. The Council of Women World Leaders aims to mobilize the highest-level female leaders globally for collective action on issues of critical importance to women.

Harman imagines the program as a chance for these female leaders to network amongst themselves and find ways to be role models and mentors to emerging women leaders.

"Our world has a scarcity of leaders," Harman said. "If more than 50 percent of the population can be encouraged to become the best leaders possible, it can only improve things. We think the potential is huge."

Despite a long and productive career in government, the feisty former California congresswoman declared herself happy in her new role.

"The Wilson center stands for freedom," Harman said. "I'm very proud of what we do."


About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 28, 2012