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Thursday, April 23, 2009

McAuliffe and Espionage - It's A Stretch, Even for Amy Gardner

Well, as I promised yesterday, I’m going to tackle what’s wrong with Amy Gardner’s hit piece linking Terry McAuliffe to an unfolding scandal involving one of his top donors, entertainment mogul, Haim Saban; AIPAC; and California congresswoman, Jane Harman.

As a disclaimer, I support Brian Moran, McAuliffe’s opponent, in the primary. So, you’d be right to wonder why I’m bothering to step into this defense of McAuliffe. It’s because I don’t think sloppy journalism should be given a pass, especially not for a professional reporter who writes for one of the nation’s top newspapers. I’ll explain why it’s sloppy journalism later, but first the facts surrounding the scandal.

This story was first reported by Time Magazine on October 20, 2006. It’s been revived because CQ Politics website is reporting that they have uncovered new facts surrounding the case. Jeff Stein reported on the existence of NSA wiretaps of Harman and an unnamed, alleged Israeli agent discussing an espionage case. On the tapes, the agent asks Harman to intervene on behalf of Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, two former AIPAC employees charged with conspiring to receive classified information that they were not authorized to access and passing it on to journalists and a foreign government, Israel. In return for Harman’s intervention, she was promised that a prominent donor would pressure House Speaker Nancy Pelosi into appointing Harman as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. That important donor with deep pockets was believed to be Haim Saban, a Hollywood entertainment mogul.

Now, if these allegations were true, obviously Harman would be guilty of illegal quid pro quo - or pay to play. She has, however, denied the charge and challenged the NSA to produce the tape.

At the time that this was first discovered, back around 2006, the Justice Department believed there was enough evidence to begin a criminal investigation of Harman. What CQ Politics and The New York Times report is that the criminal investigation against Harman was quashed by none other than Alberto Gonzales, then the Attorney General, because he needed Harman as an ally to persuade the New York Times not to print an article exposing the extent of the government’s warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. Harman helped the Bush administration with this, and has been one of its most ardent supporters of warrantless wiretaps. The New York Times ultimately published their article on the wiretaps, after a year delay, and was denounced by both Bush officials and Harman, who remained their ally on this issue.

Right now, there are as many questions about this incident as there are allegations. For starters, it’s unclear whether Harman actually followed through and intervened in any way on behalf of the former AIPAC employees. Certainly, any threats by Saban to withhold funds from Pelosi fell on deaf ears. In fact, they appeared to have the opposite effect. The Speaker appointed Texas congressman, Silvestre Reyes instead of Harman to the coveted top spot on the House Intelligence Committee. As for the trial of Rosen and Weissman, it appears to be on track for June.

That could, however, change. As the Washington Post reported, the trial may not go forward and not becuse of any intervention from Harman. Here's how the Post described it:

The government's case sparked controversy because it was the first effort to apply the law to people who did not work for the government and who were engaged in an exchange of information that many consider routine in Washington.
So, in the end, this might be much ado about nothing more than Jane Harman's poor judgment for speaking to Israeli agents and involving herself in the matter. But it's not even clear that she ever actually intervened to gain leniency for Rosen and Weissman.

Meanwhile, Amy Gardner, back in the local Metro section of the Washington Post, wanted to put a little Virginia spin on the story. She probably also wanted to show her editors that she too could do investigative reporting, which, in her case, consists of looking up VPAP online, just as bloggers do. So, without fleshing out any of the details of this complicated story, she wrote the piece pointing out that Saban has contributed a large sum to McAuliffe’s gubernatorial campaign. Gardner also spun this as a possible huge embarrassment for McAuliffe. I’m not sure why it’s a problem right now for several reasons.

The first reason is that Saban may have done nothing wrong. His involvement, so far, seems to be peripheral, so until we all know more, we probably shouldn’t be jumping to conclusions. The second factor to consider is that Saban contributes to lots of campaigns for many different reasons. I doubt very much that AIPAC or Israeli interests are a big factor in Virginia politics. But because McAuliffe was head of the DNC and was a longtime Democratic fundraiser, he probably knows Saban personally. This could simply be a matter of a friend contributing to his campaign for personal reasons. Should there be more to Saban’s involvement in the Harman-AIPAC affair, then McAuliffe might want to reconsider and return the funds. But until clear evidence emerges that Saban was involved in a pay to play scheme to help Harman get a coveted chairmanship in return for intervening in an espionage trial, everybody should withhold judgment of McAuliffe, whose only connection is through a mutual donor. That donor, by the way, has contributed to many other major Democratic campaigns since 2006.

At the same time, I would give the same advice about holding one’s powder until we find out what’s there to VA Blogger, who ran with Gardner’s story.

I can forgive VA Blogger because he’s a partisan and an amateur citizen journalist. A blogger, who probably isn’t experienced at professional journalism. What he does for his side is as admirable as what any of my colleagues on the left do for our team. But Gardner is supposed to be a trained, unbiased reporter without a team in the game. Yet too often, her biases are like a small boat, tilting so far in one direction that it threatens to capsize completely. Even though she’s not in the big league, on the front page of the national section, she needs to do a better job of gathering facts, analyzing what she’s got and not violating such basic rules of logic as leaping to false conclusions, guilt by association, and misuse of evidence. That may be a lot to ask of a blogger, but it's not too much to ask of a real reporter.

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