House Intelligence Committee chairman suspends staff member for possible leak

Friday, October 20th 2006, 11:11 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Democrats say the Republican head of the House Intelligence Committee had no grounds to suspend a staff member who's 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 on Friday, 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, wrote to Hoekstra that she was "appalled" by his action, which was "without basis." She has demanded that Hoekstra "immediately reinstate the staffer's access to classified information."

The leak to The New York Times of a National Intelligence Estimate on global terror trends caused a political uproar last month. 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 key findings.

On Friday, 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, Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., a committee member, said the Democratic staffer 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. As a result, thousands of people across government would have had access to it, including the intelligence, armed services and international relations committees of the House.

The officials said the staff member acted appropriately in requesting the document on behalf of a committee member.

Hoekstra said he does not believe that any committee Republicans had access to the intelligence assessment before it was leaked, citing a computer malfunction that prevented committee members and staff from realizing it had been transmitted to them.

"We are pretty confident that the number of people on the committee who had access to this report is very, very limited," he said.

Relations between Democrats and Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have soured in recent weeks.

On Tuesday, Harman unilaterally released the executive summary of an independent investigator's review into the actions of a jailed former congressman, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif. The report found that he abused his position on the committee to
help ensure lucrative contracts went to associates, in exchange for bribes.

Hoekstra called Harman's decision to release the document "disturbing and beyond the pale."