Stakes are high in House Intelligence leadership decision.
Nancy Pelosi is backing a controversial Florida
representative for Harman's old job.
WASHINGTON -- Among the many post-election minidramas being
played out on Capitol Hill is a saga ripe with implications
for the war on terror.
The plot features House Speaker
Nancy Pelosi bouncing a respected national security expert
in favor of an impeached federal judge as the public face
for House Democrats on the most sensitive and explosive
intelligence issues confronting the nation.
By all accounts, Pelosi appears determined to make Rep.
Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., chairman of the House Intelligence
Committee, a move driven, at least in part, by fealty to the
demands of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The post is now held by South Bay Rep. Jane Harman, D-El
Given that he was bounced from the bench by his
congressional colleagues 18 years ago on bribery-related
charges, Pelosi's apparent embrace of the 70-year-old
Hastings has unsettled many analysts.
At the same time, they don't rule out the possibility
that Hastings could dispel their misgivings by turning in a
solid performance at a time of deep concern over the
competence of the nation's intelligence agencies, reflected
by the current crisis in Iraq and looming confrontations
with Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs.
"The stakes couldn't be higher," said Joseph Cirincione,
a nuclear proliferation expert with the Center for American
Progress, a think tank with ties to the Democratic Party.
"If Hastings is the choice, he is going to have to correct
the public impression of him as a deeply compromised
politician and quickly establish a reputation as a tough,
but fair, investigator."
Harman has wide respect
Left at the altar, notwithstanding promises by previous
Democratic leaders, would be Harman, whose eight years on
the committee have won her wide bipartisan respect on
intelligence matters. About a year after Sept. 11, 2001,
Harman became the top-ranked Democrat on the panel,
launching her as one of the party's most knowledgeable
public voices on a gamut of terrorism issues.
By most measures, Harman, 61, would seem a lock for the
committee chairmanship now that the Democrats have seized
control of Congress.
She interrupted her congressional career in 1998 for an
unsuccessful campaign for governor of California. After
ardent wooing by then-Rep. Dick Gephardt, the House
Democratic floor leader at the time, Harman agreed to
reclaim her old House seat, but only after a written pledge
from Gephardt and other top Democrats that she would be
restored to her Intelligence Committee post, seniority
Her claim on the chairmanship was strengthened when she
was vaulted over a black lawmaker, Sanford Bishop, to
replace Pelosi as the ranking Democrat on the committee.
Bishop was given a seat on the powerful Appropriations
Committee. About the same time, the House amended its
internal rules to exempt the committee's chairman and
ranking minority party member from term limits.
Pressure in bribery probe
Pelosi's treatment of Bishop did not sit well with the
Black Caucus, which was further angered last spring when she
pressured Rep. William Jefferson to step down from the
prestigious House Ways and Means Committee after an FBI raid
uncovered about $90,000 in his home freezer as part of an
ongoing bribery investigation.
Against that backdrop, the caucus rallied around
Hastings, second in seniority among committee Democrats to
Harman, as payback for the way Bishop had been shoved aside.
Meanwhile, Harman is said to have angered Pelosi by
mounting a lobbying campaign for the chairmanship -- an
effort that triggered a Justice Department investigation to
determine whether she bent the law in marshaling support
from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a
pro-Israel lobbying group. Harman has denied wrongdoing.
Harman also angered many Democrats with her early backing
of the Iraq war. Even when she turned into a war critic,
some in the party felt she missed an opportunity to score
partisan points against the administration during her
frequent appearances on high-profile TV talk shows.
While Harman also has a reputation for being occasionally
abrasive and hard on her staff, the real reason for her rift
with Pelosi may be rooted in strains in their own
relationship. If so, neither one is discussing it publicly.
Pelosi's appointment of Hastings to the chairmanship
could trigger another fracas within her own caucus, which
could move to reverse her decision. Pelosi was bruised last
week when House Democrats rejected her choice for majority
It would also hand Republicans a way to dramatize a claim
that Democrats are not serious about national security -- as
foreshadowed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in an
interview on Fox News Sunday.
"I think if (Pelosi) appoints Alcee Hastings to be head
of intelligence, that will be a further mistake in the
direction of making her far too left wing and far too
insensitive," Gingrich said.
The House, with Pelosi's support, voted to impeach
Hastings in 1988, although he was acquitted of the federal
bribery charges brought seven years earlier. The criminal
case arose from an indictment alleging that Hastings and an
attorney plotted to extract bribes in return for sparing two
convicted racketeers from going to prison. The attorney was
Removed from office
With Rep. John Conyers, a prominent black caucus member,
presenting the House case, the Senate subsequently voted to
remove him from office. But that did not bar him from
running for public office, which he did in 1992 when he won
election to his current seat in the U.S. House.
The passage of time and a controversy about key pieces of
bribe evidence have softened attitudes of many toward
Even so, many experts remain uneasy about his possible
"The Democrats need to demonstrate that they are capable
handlers of the national security agenda. And Harman is
widely seen as an experienced hand at intelligence matters
and the Iraq war," said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at
the Council of Foreign Relations.
Pelosi is said to be weighing the possibility of
finessing the controversy by appointing a Latino lawmaker,
Silvestre Reyes, 61, of Texas, to the chairmanship.