Prominent Democrat Rep. sought influence for AIPAC in Rosen affair

Great story from Congressional Quarterly on a secret probe into Congresswoman Jane Harman, a Democrat with longstanding interests in intelligence issues, who promised a suspected Israeli agent involved in the Steve Rosen AIPAC scandal that she would try to intervene on AIPAC’s behalf:

Rep. Jane Harman , the California Democrat with a longtime involvement in intelligence issues, was overheard on an NSA wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department reduce espionage-related charges against two officials of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel organization in Washington.

Harman was recorded saying she would “waddle into” the AIPAC case “if you think it’ll make a difference,” according to two former senior national security officials familiar with the NSA transcript.

In exchange for Harman’s help, the sources said, the suspected Israeli agent pledged to help lobby Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., then-House minority leader, to appoint Harman chair of the Intelligence Committee after the 2006 elections, which the Democrats were heavily favored to win.

Seemingly wary of what she had just agreed to, according to an official who read the NSA transcript, Harman hung up after saying, “This conversation doesn’t exist.”

. . .

But according to the former officials familiar with the transcripts, the alleged Israeli agent asked Harman if she could use any influence she had with Gonzales, who became attorney general in 2005, to get the charges against the AIPAC officials reduced to lesser felonies.

Rosen had been charged with two counts of conspiring to communicate, and commnicating national defense information to people not entitled to receive it. Weissman was charged with conspiracy.

AIPAC dismissed the two in May 2005, about five months before the events here unfolded.

. . .

But that’s when, according to knowledgeable officials, Attorney General Gonzales intervened.

According to two officials privy to the events, Gonzales said he “needed Jane” to help support the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, which was about to be exposed by the New York Times.

Harman, he told Goss, had helped persuade the newspaper to hold the wiretap story before, on the eve of the 2004 elections. And although it was too late to stop the Times from publishing now, she could be counted on again to help defend the program

He was right.

On Dec. 21, 2005, in the midst of a firestorm of criticism about the wiretaps, Harman issued a statement defending the operation and slamming the Times, saying, “I believe it essential to U.S. national security, and that its disclosure has damaged critical intelligence capabilities.”

Pelosi and Hastert never did get the briefing.

And thanks to grateful Bush administration officials, the investigation of Harman was effectively dead.

Many people want to keep it that way.

. . .

Harman dodged a bullet, say disgusted former officials who have pursued the AIPAC case for years. She was protected by an administration desperate for help.

“It’s the deepest kind of corruption,” said a recently retired longtime national security official who was closely involved in AIPAC investigation, “which was years in the making.

“It’s a story about the corruption of government — not legal corruption necessarily, but ethical corruption.”

In other words, deep infiltration of the US political system by Israel and a supine Bush administration who could not take this on because it needed the AIPAC bunch’s support.

Things to remember about the Sudan air strike

One big question about the Sudan air strike story is what exactly happened: we have an attack on a convoy of trucks, but no clear explanation of what was on those trucks, what kind of aircraft carried the attack, the nature of the victims/smugglers or even certainty on who carried out the attack, although it seems more likely that it was Israel rather than the US (or perhaps Israel with US logistical support.) These are the basics, which are still hazy.

But if we accept that an attack took place, and that it was conducted by Israel, we still need to think carefully about the implications of this story prima facie. One important thing is that the story appears to validate accounts by the like of Elliott Abrams that Hamas is arming through the Rafah tunnels with weapons smuggled in from the Horn of Africa, through Sudan, and through Egypt where the trucks would presumably go along the Red Sea coast and enter Sinai.

Remember that the idea of smuggling through Sudan and Egypt was first advanced last February by Abrams, as Jim Lobe noted. Love argued in a follow-up:

The more one looks into it, the more Elliott Abrams’ rendition of how Iran allegedly smuggles weapons to Hamas in Gaza via Somalia and Eritrea just gets weirder and weirder. Remember: he was Bush’s top Middle East adviser from December, 2002, until January 20 and, as such, had access to the most sensitive information available to the U.S. intelligence community. Yet he seems to be lending himself to an extraordinarily crude Israeli disinformation campaign in which Somalia, which is some 1500 miles from Gaza, is depicted as a key trans-shipment point for the alleged supply of weapons from Iran to Hamas.

Yet among some this is fast becoming gospel. The Cable reports:

“A Washington think tank expert on the Middle East said, ‘The Israelis have been complaining about this supply route for a long time. This gives credence to Israeli reports that Iran is trans-shipping weapons through Sudan and Egypt to Hamas. It would be impolitic for the Israelis to do this in Egypt. This is something the Egyptians have worried about: what happens if there is some sort of attack on Israel from Egyptian soil: what kind of action would Israel take?’

He speculated that the Israeli warplanes took off from the southern Israeli air base at Ovda, flew through the Gulf of Eilat/Aqaba, down the Red Sea in between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and across and over into Sudanese air space. They reportedly struck the targeted convoy northwest of the city of Port Sudan, killing some 39 members of the 17-vehicle convoy.

Responding to the media reports Thursday, outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert didn’t try to dispel the impression that Israel had carried out the operation. ‘We operate everywhere where we can hit terror infrastructure — in close places, in places further away, everywhere where we can hit terror infrastructure, we hit them and we hit them in a way that increases deterrence,’ Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz cited him.”

Following this Somalia-Sudan-Egypt route, they would encounter multiple checkpoints and be going through governorates controlled directly by the Egyptian military. Needless to say, the idea that Iran is supplying Hamas long-range rockets and other sophisticated equipment through Egypt (which has bad relations with Iran and Hamas) suggests that either:

1. These trucks, like other types of human or drug traffic coming from Sudan, are not being caught and there is a severe security hole in Egypt’s traffic-control policies;

2. The trucks are getting through by corruption and bribery of officials they encounter, or benefit from the protection of someone up high, although these people may think the trucks contain something else entirely, like drugs;

3. The Egyptian regime, or some officials within it, are somehow complicit with the trafficking and arming of Hamas.

All of these, and especially the latter, are pretty hard to swallow. Which takes us back to a key issue: what was really on those trucks? There is plenty of weapons smuggling taking place in Sudan, for sure, but can a major operation like this have taken place overland going through Egypt, which is obviously concerned about both arms-dealing on its territory and arming Hamas (after all recently they’ve stopped millions of dollars, and hundred of sheep, from being smuggled!) Does this appear more logical than, say, smuggling by sea as has been recently alleged over the Cyprus ship? What if the trucks that were destroyed are not in fact destined for Gaza, and the attack itself is part of a disinformation campaign aimed at sending a message to Iran? Or that at least the importance of the trucks and their content has been exaggerated?

Too much of this story has not been verified. It may very well all turn out to make sense, but right now I would treat it with great caution until we have more information.

Reuters confirms Sudan air strike

Reuters is now independently confirming the Sudan air strike story:

Aircraft destroyed suspected Sudan arms convoy – officials | Reuters:

“KHARTOUM, March 26 (Reuters) – Unidentified aircraft attacked a convoy of suspected arms smugglers as it drove through Sudan toward Egypt in January, killing almost everyone in the convoy, two senior Sudanese politicians said on Thursday.

The politicians, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, told Reuters the strike took place in a remote area in east Sudan but did not say who carried it out.

Media reports in Egypt and the United States have suggested U.S. or Israeli aircraft may have carried out the strike. Sudan’s foreign minister Deng Alor told reporters in Cairo on Wednesday he had no information on any attack.

Any public confirmation of a foreign attack would have a major impact in Sudan, where relations with the West are already tense following the International Criminal Court’s decision this month to issue an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of Darfur war crimes.

Egyptian independent newspaper Al-Shorouk quoted ‘knowledgeable Sudanese sources’ this week as saying aircraft from the United States were involved in the strike, which it said killed 39 people.

The U.S. Embassy in Khartoum on Thursday declined to comment. Sudan remains on a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, but the State Department has said that Sudan is cooperating with efforts against militant groups.

U.S.-based CBS News, however, reported on its website on Wednesday that its security correspondent had been briefed that Israeli aircraft had carried out an attack in eastern Sudan, targeting an arms delivery to the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas in Gaza.

A senior Israeli defence official on Thursday described the report as nonsense.

Previously discussed here and here.

Update: Haaretz provides analysis, taking as assumption that it was an Israeli strike. Watch out for this issue being raised in a few hours at the State Dept. Daily Press Briefing – although I suspect we’ll hear more about this from off-the-record sources in the next few days.

al-Shorouk’s story on secret Sudan raids

The relatively new Egyptian newspaper al-Shorouk has been making some news yesterday, reporting that the US air force had been engaged in a series of attacks against convoys of trucks carrying arms in Eastern Sudan. The destination of the trucks, apparently, was Gaza via Sinai. Needless to say this is a huge story, not only because it would appear to confirm allegations that Hamas is obtaining Iranian-purchased arms via Sudan (and probably originally Djibouti) and that they are being smuggled through Sinai and the Rafah tunnels. It followed up on the story today alleging that US Air Force raids had claimed 300 lives.

The reason we’ve never heard about any of this, apparently, is that the US is not advertising the operations, the al-Bashir regime in Khartoum has declared a media blackout, and Egypt is respecting the blackout but keeping a close eye since this involves major arms traffic (it’s an old route, once used by the French poet Rimbaud) going through its territory. Today al-Shorouk said that an Egyptian intelligence agent visited the area to verify the issue.

I’ve been talking about this with a few people who closely follow the news yesterday and we’re all rather skeptical at this point. Some of the Egyptian press (not necessarily al-Shorouk though, as far as I know) has a bad reputation for pulling things out of thin air or basing them on unreliable disinformation websites like Debka. This would be a huge, world scoop if it turns out to be true, involving so many of the region’s hottest issues: arms trade, illegal US operations, Hamas’ supply line, Iran, Sudan and its recently indicted president. The story also assumes that a convoy of trucks carrying weapons (presumably the Grad rockets Hamas is launching against Israel) are able to make their way through Egypt, which seems impossible without the cooperation of the government or serious wasta up high. (That being said, drugs use the same route, and small arms did come from Sudan during the Islamist insurrection of the 1980s and 1990s.)

So basically, either al-Shorouk got it wrong, or it has revealed the first secret military actions of the Obama administration to control the arms smuggling to Gaza issue – as the Bush administration had promised Israel in the MOU it signed in mid-January. I’m a skeptic, but I’ll be watching how this develops.


Is is just me, or is it still surprising to see an American president that is articulate and can handle a press conference with grace and intelligence? Maybe I don’t watch TV news often enough, but I am still taken aback every time I see Obama by how well he wears his title. Unlike his predecessor, and in many respects better than Clinton.

I like this:

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama continues to face fallout from the outrage over bonuses paid to executives at AIG, which is 80% owned by the government and has received billions in federal bailout money. Asked why he did not go public with his outrage as soon as he learned of the retention bonuses at AIG, the president snapped, “I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.”

The president hit on a new theme for his administration: Persistence. He said the election of a conservative government in Israel, with a prime minister skeptical of a Palestinian state made the prospects for peace “not easier than it was.”

But, he said, as with his domestic efforts, he will soldier on.

“That whole philosophy of persistence, by the way, is one that I’m going to be emphasizing again and again in the months and years to come, as long as I am in this office,” he concluded. “I’m a big believer in persistence.”

(That’s probably how he got Michelle to date him.)

And I say this as I disagree with some of the stuff he’s done (on the economy) and wish he would get his act together and set up a Middle East foreign policy team and plan already! It would be particularly interesting to get confirmation that Hosni Mubarak will be making his first trip stateside in five years in May, as much of the Egyptian press has assumed with the recent Gamal Mubarak and Omar Suleiman visits to DC. Will Obama make Mubarak persona non grata? Will he force issues on the agenda that will make Mubarak not want to come (his original problem with Bush). Will there be any new policy departure on the question of democracy promotion in Egypt, which in 2004-2005 was arguably the flagship for the policy in the Arab world?

Update: Muhammad Salah discusses this in al-Hayat.

Choking on my chapattis

No posts this week as I have been attending a wedding in Goa, India for the last few days. Having been almost completely unplugged from my usual internet addiction, I had missed the news that Chas Freeman has been forced into withdrawing his nomination to head the US National Intelligence Council. And that the man leading the campaign is the AIPAC staffer who is on trial for espionage (and unfortunately will probably not be convicted.) More here. I did not like the fact that Freeman had ties to the Saudi lobby but find it a bit rich that he was attacked by the most powerful and malicious foreign policy lobby in the US for this, especially considering the Israel lobby’s responsibility for 20 years of failed US Middle East policy. I hope the new nominee will be someone just as (or more!) outspoken on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Normal ranting and links will resume next week.