San Diego Union-Tribune

Rep. Harman has history in anti-terrorism
   She believes risk of a major attack remains

December 24, 2001

By Toby Eckert 
WASHINGTON -- A little more than a year ago, citizen Jane
Harman was sitting on a National Commission on Terrorism that warned of serious shortcomings in the nation's preparedness for a "catastrophic terrorist attack."

The commission said the CIA was "risk-averse," that the FBI was beset by confusion about its counterterrorism role, that better controls were needed on deadly biological agents such as anthrax.

Today, the report reads like a preview of the intelligence and homeland defense vulnerabilities that became only too apparent Sept. 11. And Rep. Jane Harman now has a hand in trying to correct them.

The lawmaker from Los Angeles' South Bay is the top Democrat on the terrorism and homeland security subcommittee, hastily designated by House leaders Sept. 14 to lead the chamber's investigation of the attacks.

The job has catapulted Harman into the spotlight just a year after she reclaimed the congressional seat she gave up in 1998 to make a bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in California.

For Harman, 56, the assignment is the culmination of years of concentration on national security and intelligence issues, making the right connections in Washington and simply being in the right place at the right time.

"She's been in the anti-terrorism business long before Sept. 11. She viewed it as a very important mission for the government," said Juliette Kayyem, a terrorism expert at Harvard University who served on the national commission with Harman.

"I was active on behalf of the (commission's) report while I was out of Congress, so it was logical to me this would be an area I would continue to focus on," Harman said. "I believed, and do still, that there is a serious and continuing risk of a major terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland."

Harman owes her ranking status on the subcommittee to a
promise she extracted from Democratic leaders when they
recruited her to run against Republican Rep. Steve Kuykendall in 2000. She demanded that, if she reclaimed the seat, they restore the seniority she had built up during three terms in the House.

The quid pro quo reflected the kind of political savvy for which Harman is known. It is a skill she has honed over a 30-year career that includes stints as a Senate staffer, deputy Cabinet secretary in the Carter administration and special counsel at the Defense Department.

Known as a defense hawk, Harman was under consideration for secretary of the Army by President Clinton.

While the insider label has provided grist for her political
opponents in California, it is a definite advantage in Washington, where connections are everything. Her close ties to then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin, for instance, reportedly helped her keep Los Angeles Air Force Base off a federal closure list several years ago.

"She's interested in policy and combines that with a good
political sense and a good political style," said Jack H. Watson Jr., who was secretary to the Carter Cabinet and recruited Harman as his deputy.

In the past three months, Harman has filed a flurry of
terrorism-related bills and worked with the Republican
chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. Saxby Chambliss of
Georgia, to boost funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She has also emerged as one of the most vocal critics of the Bush administration's homeland security efforts, which hasn't sat well with the White House.

One of Harman's main targets has been the Office of Homeland Security that President Bush established and named former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to head. Harman contends the office lacks clear authority, especially over federal spending decisions, and she has been pushing legislation to give it more teeth.

"I think Ridge has lost steam," Harman said. "From what I can tell, he's a capable guy who certainly has the confidence of the president. But he has inadequate tools."

After initially drawing support from several GOP lawmakers, the effort lost momentum in the face of strong White House
opposition. Even some allies believe she may have jumped the gun on the issue.

L. Paul Bremmer III, who headed the National Commission on Terrorism, is a key member of another panel studying the issue that recommended the establishment of a homeland security office before Sept. 11.

"We believed, like Jane, that the head of the office should be appointed with the advice and consent of the Senate and should have budget authority," said Bremmer, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large on terrorism issues.

"The president has made up his mind how he wants to organize it and believes it is adequate. My view is that we ought to give the president a chance to prove us wrong. You can always come back to it."

Harman is also a critic of the order Bush issued to bring foreign terrorism suspects before military tribunals. While backing the idea in general, she called the order "overbroad and quite dangerous" and has introduced legislation to put some limits on the tribunals.

Harman also believes Attorney General John Ashcroft has gone too far in the secretive detention of hundreds of foreign nationals and allowing the monitoring of conversations between suspected terrorists and their attorneys. The latter move came shortly after Congress approved sweeping new investigative powers for the Justice Department, which Harman supported.

"The ink was barely dry on the bill when Ashcroft rolled out a number of additional actions that he plans to take on a unilateral basis," Harman said. "It's those actions that are troubling and that I think are creating a side show the administration doesn't need."

With public approval of the administration's actions running
high, such criticism may carry a political risk for Harman. But that doesn't seem to worry her, and she has given credit to Bush in other areas.

"I give very high marks to our international effort," Harman said, applauding the administration for speaking with a strong, unified voice in the war on terrorism abroad.

Despite differing with Harman on some matters, such as the Ridge legislation, Chambliss, the subcommittee chairman, lauded Harman for working in a bipartisan manner on the panel, which is part of the House Intelligence Committee.

"I could not have asked for a ranking member to work in a more cooperative manner than Jane has with me," he said. "There are obviously things you have to do from a partisan standpoint from time to time. But this committee has always worked on a bipartisan basis, and that has carried over to this subcommittee."

Numerous other congressional panels have staked a claim to issues related to Sept. 11. But Harman expects the terrorism and homeland subcommittee's output to carry significant weight with House leaders.

"We're the ones who are going to produce the report" on the Sept. 11 attacks, she said. "I think, as this sorts out, there will be some big moves that this subcommittee will have ownership over."