05/19/2006 03:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Jane Harman Should Be Challenged

It must have been embarrassing for Rep. Jane Harman to read the front page of the Times this week that Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi "intends to force Harman to step down" from her slot on the House Intelligence Committee, partly because of "concern among Democrats that Harman is too moderate and inclined to accomodate the Republican agenda." [May 18]

If challenger Marcy Winograd has the money to mail that credible Times' summary to enough voters, she might even win a primary upset June 6.

As things stand, the challenge by Winograd and progressive Democrats already has forced Harman to change her rhetoric, finally calling the Bush Administration "lawless" on national television. In this case, the flip-flopping favors progressives, but it may not be enough for Harman.

It's no secret that Harman is the center of Democratic friction. She was one of a handful of Congressmembers invited into the secret White House briefings on what has mushroomed into a major scandal: the launch of domestic spying by intelligence agencies without warrants. The ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, Harman promised the White House to keep secret what she heard at the meetings.

She could have been a whistleblower, but chose not to be.

She could have refused the unconditional promise of secrecy, but chose not to.

She could have resigned the secret committee without comment, letting her silence do the talking, but chose not to.

Left to Harman, the spy scandal would still be a secret today. It was the New York Times, not Democratic leaders, who first broke the silence and secrecy.

Harman actually approved the spy program in her initial comments, then sought a legal opinion before commenting further.

Like Joseph Lieberman in the Senate, Harman was a forceful hawk on Iraq when Democrats were trying find a way out. Pelosi seemed protect her status. Maxine Waters finally broke with Pelosi over Iraq, and formed an Out of Iraq congressional caucus, now enrolling some 70 members. One of Waters' first speeches after forming the caucus happened to be in Venice, a frustrated progressive enclave in Harman's district. In response to a question, Waters spontaneously called on the residents to vote against Harman. It was a breach of the usual incumbent protection ethos, revealing the depth of divisions within the party itself.

Harman's base began to erode as the unknown Winograd showed up at one endorsement meeting after another. Harman couldn't even achieve the endorsement of the Democrats from her own district. In Sacramento, the party hierarchy bailed her out at the state convention, but not without an uproar from the floor delegates.

Voters this week will begin receiving volumes of mail from Jane Harman, advertising her as fighting to end the war and protect citizens from Big Brother. There may be endorsements from Barbara Boxer, Barbara Lee, and other liberal Democrats who endorsed her as an incumbent courtesy before Winograd jumped into the race. In an ordinary election year, that should be enough to re-elect an incumbent.

But the "Democratic sources" willling to blast the incumbent as too accomodating to the Republicans illustrate the willingness of certain Democratic operatives or leaders to strike at the incumbent without leaving fingerprints. The reference to Pelosi's unequivocal decision to dump Harman from her intelligence spot is especially damning. Why should voters re-elect someone who claims to be a leader on intelligence and security but who is being shunted aside by her own party caucus? Sounds like a wasted vote.

This is not to denigrate Harman or extol Democratic doves. Harman is a hardworking conservative Democrat who is simply reluctant to acknowledge that the whole Iraq War is a disastrous mistake. She hasn't learned from Vietnam and Watergate, except the conservative "lesson" that America's military reputation must be restored through action.

James Carroll's brilliant new history of modern wars, House of War, reveals military-industrial Pentagon complex achieves the force of a Niagra Falls that is almost impossible for members of Congress to stop and reverse. Given the context of the "War on Terrorism", we are entering a phase of institutional history beyond the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned against. The democratic electoral process now exists only in the shadows of a corporate state led by intelligence operatives and special operations forces throughout the world. As a leading advocate of this "supremacy by stealth", Robert Kaplan, has written in the Atlantic Monthly [July-August 2003] that "the best information strategy is to avoid attention-getting confrontations in the first place and to keep the public's attention as divided as possible. We can dominate the world only quietly: off camera, so to speak."

Jane Harman is unprepared to face this new apparatus of power, not least because she shares so many of its assumptions. Indeed, there is a question whether the Congress itself, which now operates reactively at the outskirts of real decision-making, or the mainstream media, which often collaborates with its national security sources, are fully capable of performing the checks-and-balances functions envisioned in the Constitution. Some authors like Chalmers Johnson, in Sorrows of Empire, laments that the secret military state-within-the-state have gone too far for democracy to control.

There is little in the backgrounds of elected officials to enable them to perform a watchdog function on a secret arrangement, then stand up and call for the resignations of the keepers of our darkest secrets. Politicians are more conditioned to seek popularity, take care of their district's parochial needs and constituent services, and avoid the overwhelmng issues of secrecy, war and peace wherever possible. How long does it take a Congress member to feel a mastery of nuclear weapons development, budgets and strategic policies?

While there always will be a few elected officials and investigative reports the public can count on, the hope for building serious opposition to Carroll's "house of war" rests with citizen's efforts at freedom of speech and assembly in the commons, the neighorhoods whose families and budgets suffer, and where popular wrath surfaces in anti-war campaigns -- from Vietnam, to Central America, to the nuclear freeze, and finally to Iraq. It was brave individuals who leaked the hidden photographs from Abu Ghraeb and of those caskets of US servicemen coming home. They are the mysterious people who have the capacity to resist authority, refuse to serve, break out of silence, and sometimes remove politicians from office like wind and lightning, so that stones are overturned and secrets laid bare.