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Former IWP student Art Harman: Securing our country through political work

Art Harman PortraitFormer IWP student Art Harman is currently The Conservative Caucus’s Executive Director and the founder and president of The Coalition to Save Manned Space Exploration. Art knew he wanted to become involved in politics and international affairs following his senior year of high school when, living in Italy, he witnessed firsthand the effects and brainwashing of Soviet-sponsored Communism in that country. Out of a feeling of responsibility to our nation, Art has spent his career promoting American ideals and values. In this interview, Art tells us about his time on Capitol Hill, his nonprofit, his current political work, and the time he got arrested by the KGB.

Please tell us a little about your work in politics.

I served as the Legislative Director for the Office of Congressman Steve Stockman, representing the 36th district in the Houston, Texas area. I was also his space policy advisor and foreign affairs advisor. He was not your typical member who wanted to get along with the leadership by compromising our values. We found ways to help aid Taiwan, and we worked to do everything we could to restrain China and help our national defense.

In 2014, the Senate passed a bill granting amnesty to all illegal immigrants. The talk among the House Republicans was that the then-speaker would try to pass the bill either by amending it into a conservative border security bill or ignoring what is called the ‘Hastert Rule,’ whereby the Speaker wouldn’t schedule a floor vote on any bill that did not have majority support from GOP members.

At the time, we thought about how we might stop this bill from passing. I realized that because the bill contained taxes, fines, and fees–revenue, it violated the origination clause of the Constitution that states that all bills for raising revenue must originate in the House. This is something that long-term staffers and members never thought about doing, even though many of our peers were opposed to the amnesty bill and were far more experienced.

As a result of my idea and Congressman Stockman’s work, the bill was declared unconstitutional and would not be brought up for a vote, and our nation was more secure. You can’t have a country without borders.

I encourage anyone in any field to think outside the box and use history as an example. In this case, there have been plenty of other bills that had been killed with this same procedure. You don’t have to be in leadership to accomplish something important for national security.

Art Harman at the Johnson Space Center in Houston
Art Harman at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Photographer: James Blair

Why did you take Dr. John Lenczowski’s course at IWP?

I have known John for a long time, and we think alike on strategic matters. I took his course while working for Congressman Stockman. During my entire time at IWP, I don’t think I ever missed a class.

Because of my position of responsibility to our nation, and the oath I took to uphold our Constitution, I asked myself how I could better myself. How can I learn more from the lessons of history? And so I found myself at IWP.

I already knew many of the things we studied in one way or another, but when you learn something formally, you sharpen your prior thinking along those same topics. This has even more power than I thought. I encourage everyone to take IWP classes and programs.

Please tell us about your current work.

I currently serve as the Executive Director of the Conservative Caucus, one of the oldest and largest conservative grassroots organizations, founded in 1974. I worked for the Conservative Caucus before I worked in Congress, and following that service, I was invited to the board and then became the Executive Director. We are working to get more people active on the grassroots level by knocking on doors, registering voters, and helping people get to the polls on election day. We are promoting issues like defending our border and getting people active on the local level with their school boards. But my continuing self-assigned responsibility to our defense took me on a trip this summer to Taiwan for the first time since a Congressional delegation in 2014. During this visit, I met with officials and the best non-profit civil defense organization with my asymmetric deterrence recommendations and gained a greater understanding of their defense needs. It’s important to write papers, but personal visits can effect greater change. Your expertise in foreign affairs will similarly be taken seriously if you request such meetings when abroad.

Please tell us about your work with the Coalition to Save Manned Space Exploration.

I founded the Coalition in 2010 when President Obama ended America’s return to the moon with NASA. I asked myself, what can I do? I know politics, lobbying, media, and PR. Based on that, I reached out to many people to try to reverse the actions taken. In the process, I talked with many of the well-known astronauts – including some who went to the moon.

I was also a Space Advisor to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and was responsible for getting him to talk about the space program during his campaign. At the time, his policy advisor said he didn’t want Trump to discuss things beyond the core issues such as the border, “made in America,” national security, etc. I asked him, “You want to win Florida, don’t you?” That resonated, and several days later, Trump and Pence each spoke about the space program during visits to Florida.

This is an example of what one person can do. The Coalition to Save Manned Space Exploration is something that I keep up with despite my more full-time endeavors now.

Space is the next frontier, and China is intent on dominating it and has publicly declared that orbital space, the Moon, and Mars are like the South China Sea. China aims to deny us access to the moon, or at least the most livable parts, where there is water ice in polar craters. With ice, you have oxygen to breathe, water to drink, hydrogen and oxygen are rocket fuel, etc. This is where humanity can live and build an economy, but China aims to be on the moon before us. In most of my public policy work on space with Congress, staffers, and others, this is part of what I talk about. It’s not just about a space economy, tech leadership, and exploration; it’s also about national security. Few staffers and members of Congress really understand it without my explanations.

I presented a long paper to the incoming Trump White House on space policy, with 10 or more steps the president could take, including ensuring that we were on the moon by the end of his second term, with the knowledge that a following president could drop the ball again.

We are lucky that the Biden Administration picked the current NASA administrator, the former Florida Senator Bill Nelson, because he has not repeated Obama’s decision to cancel key elements of our space program. Nelson understands the importance of protecting our interests in space and the threat from China.

We need to become more proactive as we have been losing the ability to defend our assets in space. That is, until Elon Musk came along. China and Russia have plans to destroy our satellites in a time of war and have threatened to do so. In fact, Russia threatened to destroy Starlink and NATO satellites at the start of the Ukraine War. The only thing that effectively protects our satellite communications is Starlink, because Elon Musk can launch them faster than Russia or China can destroy them. Starlink has been a major factor in Ukraine for retaining communications in a time of war, and I recommended that Taiwan acquire tens of thousands for the same reason.

Art Harman at the Kennedy Space Center
Art Harman at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida

How did you originally get interested in politics?

I’ve read many of the philosophical cornerstones of the conservative movement; however, what most inspired me was my senior year of high school when I lived in Italy. The Italian Communist Party ran the region of Italy I was in, and I would have conversations with local kids who would praise the Communist Party. Here I am, growing up, learning about the Cold War and the Soviet Union, and here are all these Italians saying that Communism is wonderful and so efficient.

I would debate with them and explain that the Kremlin was running their affairs. I learned of the train cars carrying money and orders directly from Moscow, showing the subservience of the party to Moscow. I would ask the kids if they were against fascism, and they would say ‘Of course.’ However, the only real difference to the man in the street between fascism and communism is their logos. The Italians I talked with never got it.

I saw the brainwashing techniques of the Communist Party on the youth. In Italy, social life centers around local bars, which are like French cafés. Many of them are politically oriented. Our town had the Christian Democratic bar, the Social Democratic bar, and the ‘Casa del Popolo’ run by the local Communist Party—we called it the “Commie bar.” The Commie bar had the best games and the biggest game rooms for kids and would sponsor soccer teams. They made communism seem fun.

When the communists would call huge national labor strikes, they would shut everything down and organize large parades on those days. Beforehand, the boys would carve AK-47s out of wood and the girls would paint bed sheets like Soviet flags, which they would then proudly carry in the parades. They were being trained to be communist revolutionaries, whether they knew it or not. Those kids might be candidates for later recruitment by the Red Brigades as terrorists.

This experience was a real eye-opener, and it sparked my interest in politics and international affairs.

This is what the far left is doing today in America – brainwashing people into thinking socialism is fun and good. Later in my life, I visited communist countries and was even arrested by the KGB.

What led to your arrest by the KGB?

This was in early 1991 when I worked for the Conservative Caucus. We had led several fact-finding tours around the world like congressional delegations, including one with Rep. Jack Kemp. We would get briefings at embassies and meet with various foreign officials, including vice presidents, members of parliament, and defense ministers.

We were in the Baltic nations in early 1991, and after we met with the Vice President of Poland, we took the night train through the Kaliningrad, a part of the Soviet Union to Lithuania. That transit was bizarre in itself. That is when the police took the head of our organization, Howard Phillips, off the train because we were carrying things like copies of the Constitution and books about freedom and liberty. They held him for a while before releasing him.

While the Baltics had recently declared independence and elected their own free parliaments, Gorbachev decided to re-conquer the Baltics and had sent in troops to seize their parliaments. He failed because the people rallied around the parliament buildings – a great example of grassroots action as the people took brave responsibility for their nation. In Lithuania, many people were murdered by Soviet troops who unsuccessfully tried to capture the Parliament.

We visited the Parliament in Lithuania and saw the building surrounded by sandbags, as well as candles and pictures of those the Soviets had killed. It was very moving, like when I was in Berlin when the wall came down. That was another interesting trip. Anyway, at that time, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were semi-occupied by Soviet troops and the KGB, but they didn’t have control of Parliament. It was a fascinating standoff and a demonstration of the bravery of the citizens. Later that year when Yeltsin replaced Gorbachev, the Baltics were at last totally free of Soviet control.

When we were in Riga, Latvia, we met with several new members of Parliament and freedom fighters who had risked everything during the Soviet era. We had all brought with us small gifts to give to the people, such as American flags and copies of the Constitution. I brought bumper stickers from Young Americans for Freedom that said “Victory over Communism,” which were cherished by those I gave them to.

One night, a friend and I were out at midnight, and I stuck one of the stickers on the city’s statue of Lenin.

We were being watched by a Soviet patrol that quickly came up behind us, removed the sticker, and grabbed us. We were taken to what they described as KGB headquarters – and later, I received confirmation of that. A KGB officer led us down a hall to an interrogation room, where he began to berate us, verbally scaring the hell out of us.

I literally thought this was the last anyone would hear from us. I didn’t know how it would end. The KGB is not the place to be!

That became like a scene from a badly acted movie. One moment he was saying stuff to scare us, and the next, he turned really nice and said he also wanted to tear down that statue many times. He said he wanted to move to America and live in Texas. Eventually, he let us go, and somehow we were able to find our way back to our hotel.

Five years ago, when relating the experience to a friend of a friend from the Ukrainian special forces, he knew exactly what building I was talking about – and confirmed that it was indeed the Riga KGB headquarters. He described the building exactly and informed me that we were lucky to be taken upstairs to the interrogation rooms – not downstairs, where the execution chambers were.

This sticker was of course a stupid prank on my part, but it taught me something I couldn’t have gotten any other way: I felt what it was like to be a Soviet citizen living under the daily terror of Communist tyranny.

Could you share some advice for our students?

My advice? Take every IWP class you can. Recruit others. Seek to make a difference. Don’t get seduced by power.

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Art Harman with the Space Shuttle Atlantis