THIS CONVERSATION DOES EXIST…. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) has some explaining to do. CQ‘s Jeff Stein has the story.

Rep. Jane Harman, the California Democrat with a longtime involvement in intelligence issues, was overheard on an NSA wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department reduce espionage-related charges against two officials of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel organization in Washington.

Harman was recorded saying she would “waddle into” the AIPAC case “if you think it’ll make a difference,” according to two former senior national security officials familiar with the NSA transcript.

In exchange for Harman’s help, the sources said, the suspected Israeli agent pledged to help lobby Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., then-House minority leader, to appoint Harman chair of the Intelligence Committee after the 2006 elections, which the Democrats were heavily favored to win.

Seemingly wary of what she had just agreed to, according to an official who read the NSA transcript, Harman hung up after saying, “This conversation doesn’t exist.”

As a rule, that’s the kind of comment politicians make when they engage in a conversation they shouldn’t be having. It’s also the kind of comment a politician makes when he/she assumes no one else is listening in on the call.

Except, Harman was wrong, and officials were listening. It wasn’t even an example of the NSA abusing legal limits — Harman was heard through legal surveillance.

Now, some of this may sound familiar. There were reports a few years ago about an FBI probe of Harman and her activities with pro-Israel lobbyists, but the investigation was dropped.

What we’ve learned from Stein’s piece, however, is that the probe was scrapped, not for “lack of evidence,” but because then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales intervened to let Harman off the hook.

And why would he do that? “Because, according to three top former national security officials, Gonzales wanted Harman to be able to help defend the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, which was about break in The New York Times and engulf the White House.”

For the record, Harman’s office rejects the allegations altogether.

This story is likely to stick around for a while, but I’ll just add this: it’s starting to be clearer whey Harman was passed over the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee and a role in the Obama administration.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.