Last updated: June 9, 2012 12:12 am

At home: Jane Harman

The former US congresswoman recalls a life spent in the corridors of power
Jane Harman at her home in Washington, DC©Matthew Rakola

Jane Harman in the sitting room of her home in Washington, DC

On the morning of 9/11, Jane Harman, a US congresswoman from California, was heading down the corridors toward the dome of the Capitol for a House intelligence committee meeting when her mobile phone rang. “My staff called and said, ‘Something terrible has happened, come back.’ Then they closed the Capitol and 200 members of Congress were milling around outside with no place to go. We had no evacuation plan, no building to go to. We ended up in the police station.”

Harman, who became the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee in 2002 and resigned from Congress in 2011 to head the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, tells the story from a sofa in her California-style house in Washington, DC. With its redwood exteriors and extensive use of glass, the house could be overlooking a Pacific coast forest instead of the city’s Rock Creek Park. “I was upset that the Capitol was closed. It was a bad move to show the American people that government closed.”

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Congress may now have plans for emergency shelter but, says Harman, it has failed to nail together laws for handling potential terrorists, from intelligence gathering to detention of suspects. “There’s still no legal framework. What are the basic legal rules for detaining possible terrorists in our country and abroad? How do you protect both the public and individual liberty? There has never been a real debate about the intersection of our values and our requirements for gathering intelligence. Congress is just not having this conversation.”

We are in a sitting room that, like the rest of the house, is both modern and minimalist. It was a favourite hideout of Harman’s late husband, Sidney Harman, the dynamic audio-equipment chief executive who built up Harman International Industries. He also bought Newsweek in 2010, a year before his death at the age of 92. “This was my husband’s refuge. He called it his eyrie,” says Harman of the room, where wall-to-ceiling windows create a treehouse effect.

The room also has a deeper significance. “This is where Sidney and I got married 30 years ago.” She shows me a wedding album that lies open on a side table. “You can see all the guests in the garden.”

Harman’s California-style home©Matthew Rakola

Harman’s California-style home

Before running for Congress, Harman, a 1969 Harvard Law School graduate, had already chalked up legal experience on Capitol Hill as chief counsel of a Senate subcommittee. The Hill, she says, was an all-male world. “I was the first woman on the judiciary subcommittee on constitutional rights. They solved problems socialising after work over drinks.” She also had a ringside seat to another US trauma: Watergate.

“I came to the Hill for the Nixon impeachment. I was the only woman there at a small Sunday meeting of senior Democrats after the Saturday night massacre [when Nixon dismissed the special prosecutor and the attorney-general resigned]. We were crafting a response to an event we feared could cause the fall of government. It was a scary time and I expected tanks in the streets.”

She describes her 1992 win of a congressional seat near her home town in California as “improbable”. “I was 47. I’d had a full career,” says Harman, who also had a stint in the Carter administration as special counsel to the defence department. “The seat was the only elected office I’d sought other than junior high school treasury, which I lost.”

The 36th district was traditionally Republican. “Maureen Reagan ran against me. When she lost, the Republican pro-choice women formed Republicans for Harman. My other secret weapon was the aerospace executives. I knew a fair amount about security issues. Aerospace was the biggest export in California. That’s why I served on all the security committees.”

A Barcelona chair©Matthew Rakola

A Barcelona chair

As a member of a terrorism subcommittee, she had predicted a major terrorist attack. “On 9/10, I had lunch with Paul ‘Jerry’ Bremer [head of the US-led Provisional Coalition Authority in Iraq between 2003 and 2004] and we agreed that nobody was taking any notice of a report we wrote.” Harman, who voted in favour of the US invasion of Iraq, was also one of the first officials briefed on the abuses at Abu Ghraib. “I was among the first to see the photos. They were sickening.”

Now, as the first woman to lead the Wilson Center, Harman is using her post to call for solid legal policies on intelligence gathering and the treatment of terrorist detainees.

Guantánamo detainees, she says, are stuck in a no-man’s land, literally and legally. “Congress’s actions on Gitmo have not been enlightened. Congress has used Article III Federal Courts to convict more than 400 people. Only a few have had military trials. And the choice of Guantánamo was cynical. The prison is outside US legal jurisdiction. The chicken coops are gone and now it’s a high-tech operation. But it’s ironic that it’s on a section of Cuba rented from the government of Cuba.”

She says the Wilson Centre is an ideal place to jump-start debate. “It’s a safe political space where members of Congress can talk to each other. It’s a living memorial to Woodrow Wilson, who believed that scholarship and policy need to be combined. He was also our only US president with a PhD.”

Under Harman, discussions span a wide range of topics from security and the economy to tackling work-life conflicts. Politics, she says, can be bruising. “It’s a tough life that sucks out all the oxygen in the room. It’s weekdays and weekends. In election season, it’s all-nighters too. I used to say of Sidney, that in macro terms he was proud. In micro terms, he was totally inconvenienced. But we made it work,” says Harman, who had two children with Sidney and two with her first husband Richard Frank.

Family photos including Harman’s husband with Bill Clinton©Matthew Rakola

Family photos including Harman’s husband with Bill Clinton

Even on 9/11, she found herself juggling national and private emergencies. “It was a terrifying day. I couldn’t reach my daughter at school. Here I was, a mom and senior Democrat trying to carry out both roles in an extraordinary moment.”

Harman has brought the Council of Women World Leaders to the Wilson Center. “It’s a network of women leaders around the world, from finance ministers to heads of state. There are 20 women heads of state out of 53 total since 1960. There hasn’t been one yet in the Middle East or the US.”

I ask about a sculpture on the coffee table, of a man on a bench. “It was an award for Sidney in honour of [financier] Bernard Baruch,” says Harman, who took over as owner of Newsweek/Daily Beast after her husband’s death.

We return to the absence of US legal policies on terrorism. Would the existence of legal structures have prevented the abuses of Abu Ghraib? “Absolutely. The laws were unclear. The training was inadequate. It was a high-stress time where supervisors and decision-makers were distracted.”

Harman gets up to leave for a political dinner and adds one last point. “The bottom line is that we need clear lines if we’re going to have security and liberty. Ben Franklin was just a little younger than Sidney when he said that those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither. We have to have laws because we don’t want the people who protect us to be either risk averse – or lawless.”

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Favourite things

A photo of Harman's grandkids©Matthew Rakola

“If you’re asking what my favourite things are, then they’re photos of my grandkids,” says Harman, pointing to framed photographs of children at play. Here are [her son] Matthew’s children.”

At the Wilson Center, Harman, who has four children and four stepchildren, has hosted debates on the daily work-life choices facing women politicians. “The choices can be heartbreaking. You have to prioritise every morning at 5am when you wake up. I do that every day.”

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