Saturday, October 21, 2006

Democratic House staffer suspended over Iraq leak

Democratic House staffer suspended over Iraq leak

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee has suspended a Democratic staff member over a possible leak of a politically explosive intelligence report involving Iraq, officials said on Friday.

The action, taken three weeks before the November election battle for control of Congress, brought a protest from the committee's leading Democrat who accused Republicans of political retaliation.

The staff member, who was not identified, has not been accused of any wrongdoing, officials said.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the panel chairman, ordered his security clearance suspended after another Republican lawmaker raised suspicions about the staffer's handling of an April national intelligence estimate on global terrorism.

Hoekstra spokesman Jamal Ware said the staffer will not be allowed into the committee's secure areas or to view classified material until the committee completes an in-house review of the matter.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Friday declined to comment on whether the Justice Department would also investigate.

The classified intelligence estimate, which said the Iraq war was helping to drive the growth of the global Islamist movement, caused an uproar after its contents were leaked to the New York Times and other media outlets late in September.

The suggestion that Bush administration policy in Iraq had increased the danger of international terrorism put Republicans on the defensive over national security, a main issue in the election campaign.

Hoekstra acted after another Republican on the intelligence committee, Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois, pointed out that the Democratic staff member requested and received a copy of the document from the office of U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte just days before the leaks began to appear.

"This may, in fact, be only coincidence, and simply look bad. But coincidence, in this town, is rare," LaHood said in a letter to Hoekstra.

The committee's senior Democrat, Rep. Jane Harman of California, accused Hoekstra of abusing his power and said in a statement that the staff member had requested the document on behalf of a lawmaker on the panel.

Harman described Hoekstra's "unilateral" action as retaliation for her decision this week to release an internal panel report on a former Republican committee member now in jail for a bribery conviction.

Relations between Republicans and Democrats on the intelligence committee have deteriorated sharply with the approach of the November 7 election, which analysts say could give Democrats control of the House for the first time since 1994.