Parsing Goss’s Role In The Harman Story

May 5, 2009 8:37 a.m.

It’s worth trying to clear up some of the confusion on a key point that came out of yesterday’s post.

We wrote that, after reading the transcript of Jane Harman’s wiretapped conversation with the suspected Israeli agent, then-CIA director Porter Goss signed off on the Justice Department’s application for a FISA warrant to wiretap Harman herself.That was a paraphrase of what CQ‘s Jeff Stein reported in his original story on the subject:

The Justice Department attorneys were prepared to pursue a case against Harman, which would include electronic surveillance approved by the so-called FISA Court, the secret panel established by the 1979 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to hear government wiretap requests. First, however, they needed the certification of top intelligence officials that Harman’s wiretapped conversations justified a national security investigation.

Then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss reviewed the Harman transcript and signed off on the Justice Department’s FISA application, two sources said.

But, as we noted in an update this morning, Stein told us that he had worded that passage poorly. He said that Goss did not in fact sign off on a Justice Department application for a FISA warrant to wiretap Harman herself. Rather, his sources tell him that Goss signed off on DOJ’s application to renew its tap on the suspected Israeli agent, merely certifying that, from CIA’s viewpoint, it was a legitimate national security tap.

Stein added:

I could have been more precise on this point. I did not mean to imply that Goss had approved of a Justice Department investigation of Harman. He would have no role to play in that. At this point I do not know for sure what DOJ did specifically about Harman, beyond the fact that the FBI wanted to question her about her conversation with the wiretap target. The main point, which I could have made clearer, is that Goss was obligated to notify Hastert and Pelosi that the FBI intended to question her about the conversation.

That seems like an important clarification, and one that significantly affects our understanding of Goss’s role. If he merely signed off on DOJ’s application to continue their wiretapping of the suspected agent (and then followed protocol by attempting to inform Congressional leaders that Harman had been picked up on a wiretap, and that the FBI planned to talk to her about it), then he appears less central to the story than if he authorized (or even, as some have speculated, initiated) an investigation into Harman herself.

But clearly, there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

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