WASHINGTON -- Democrats say the Republican head of the House Intelligence Committee had no grounds to suspend a staff member who has come under scrutiny for the leak of a secret intelligence assessment.
The unidentified staff member, a Democrat, was suspended this week by chairman Peter Hoekstra and is being denied access to classified information pending the outcome of a review. In an interview yesterday, Hoekstra said the step was the least aggressive he could take while the committee investigates.
The Michigan Republican said the committee aide will be interviewed and other information will be collected. That could include correspondence, phone records, and interviews with people who interacted with the aide. For now, Hoekstra said, he has not involved the FBI, which would normally handle investigations into leaks of classified material.
"We ought to be able to resolve this very, very quickly," he said.
The Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, Jane Harman of California, said Hoekstra's "action is without basis and an abuse of his power" in overseeing security access.
"There is no evidence to suggest that the professional staff member in question did anything wrong," she said in a statement. She depicted Hoekstra's move as political payback, saying the chairman was angry that Harman had released a report about a former Republican congressman jailed for taking bribes.
The leak to The
In the assessment, completed in April, analysts from the government's 16 spy agencies concluded that the Iraq war has become a "cause celebre" for Islamic extremists, breeding deep resentment of the United States.
President Bush, who suggested the document was leaked for "political purposes" weeks before the midterm elections, later made public four pages of the estimate's findings.
Yesterday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales would not discuss whether the Justice Department is investigating who leaked the information about the intelligence assessment. But he described the government as "concerned about the disclosure of classified information, particularly during a time of war."
"Certain kinds of information are protected by law and should remain so," he said.
In a letter to Hoekstra dated Sept. 29, committee member Ray LaHood, a Republican from Illinois, said the Democratic staff member requested the document from National Intelligence Director John Negroponte three days before a Sept. 23 story by the Times on its conclusions.
"I have no credible information to say any classified information was leaked from the committee's minority staff, but the implications of such would be dramatic," LaHood said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press. "This may, in fact, be only coincidence, and simply `look bad.' But coincidence, in this town, is rare."
A conference call to the committee's nine Democrats on Wednesday to inform them of the aide's suspension prompted outrage, said two congressional officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about internal committee business.
The officials said that the national intelligence estimate was marked "secret," rather than "top secret" or another more restrictive classification.
Harman said thousands of people across government would have had access to it and noted the assessment was also posted on the committee's internal website days before the story was published.