Key Dem Urged NYT Reporter against Running Warrantless Wiretapping Story

March 19, 2008 4:58 p.m.

Here’s another nugget from Eric Lichtblau’s new book.

It’s well known that The New York Times held the story about the warrantless wiretapping program for more than a year. A concerted lobbying campaign by the administration at first convinced editors at the Times not to run the story in late 2004. But Lichtblau adds a new detail about how one of the few Democrats who had been briefed on the program seemed to take the administration’s side of things.

The administration’s main contention (beyond lying about there being no dissent about the legality of the program) was that reporting the existence of the program would compromise it and tip off the terrorists. In his book, Lichtblau tells how a few months after the story was held, he happened to be covering a House hearing where he heard Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) argue passionately for stronger civil liberties safeguards in the reauthorization of the Patriot Act.

Lichtblau saw this as an opportunity to question Harman about the warrantless wiretapping program, since Harman, as a member of the “gang of eight,” was one of the four Democrats who’d been briefed on it. He writes:

I approached Harman with notepad in hand and told her that I’d been involved in our reporting the year before on the NSA eavesdropping program. “I’m trying to square what I heard in there,” I said, “with what we know about that program.” Harman’s golden California tan turned a brighter shade of red. She knew exactly what I was talking about. Shooing away her aides, she grabbed me by the arm and drew me a few feet away to a more remote section of the Capitol corridor.

“You should not be talking about that here,” she scolded me in a whisper. “They don’t even know about that,” she said, gesturing to her aides, who were now looking on at the conversation with obvious befuddlement. “The Times did the right thing by not publishing that story,” she continued. I wanted to understand her position. What intelligence capabilities would be lost by informing the public about something the terrorists already knew – namely, that the government was listening to them? I asked her. Harman wouldn’t bite. “This is a valuable program, and it would be compromised,” she said. I tried to get into some of the details of the program and get a better understanding of why the administration asserted that it couldn’t be operated within the confines of the courts. Harman wouldn’t go there either. “This is a valuable program,” she repeated. This was clearly as far as she was willing to take the conversation, and we didn’t speak again until months later, after the NSA story had already run. By then, Harman’s position had undergone a dramatic transformation. 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.

Harman did say in an appearance on Meet The Press in 2006, after the story broke, that she “deplored” the leak that led to the Times story. But she said that the president’s public confirmation of the program’s existence after the Times story had allowed her to consult with “constitutional experts, the former general counsel of the CIA, some of the excellent staff on the House Intelligence Committee.” She continued: “then I learned, although I’m a trained lawyer, about some of the serious legal issues that I have been raising ever since.”

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