DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Even by the standards of Washington in high election season, things have turned rather nasty on the House Intelligence Committee. The Republican and Democratic leaders of the panel spent this week swapping curt letters. At least one staffer is caught in the crossfire and others fear they could be next.
NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: Here's the way things were on the House Intelligence Committee. Less than two months ago, the committee's Chairman, Republican Peter Hoekstra, gave an interview to NPR and talked about how much he enjoyed working with his Democratic counterpart, Jane Harman.
Representative PETER HOEKSTRA (Republican, Michigan): Jane and I have really tried to maintain a very, very good relationship. You know, we like each other personally. When it looks like it's taking a turn to go ugly, we'll sit down and we'll try to get it back on course.
KELLY: But ugly barely begins to describe the turn relations have taken in the weeks since that interview. There're several reasons why things soured, but the leading one came last week. Without Hoekstra's consent, on October 17th, Harman released part of an investigation of Duke Cunningham, a former Republican member of the intelligence committee who's now in prison for taking bribes.
Hoekstra hit the roof, accusing Harman of politicizing intelligence in the run-up to midterm elections. Then, later that same day, Hoekstra suspended a Democratic staffer name Larry Hanauer for possibly leaking a different report, a classified National Intelligence Estimate. This time, Harman exploded. If you have a problem with me, why not deal with me directly, Harman wrote to Hoekstra.
Yesterday, in a phone interview from her home in California, she suggested Hoekstra is trying to get back at her through her staff.
Rep. JANE HARMAN (Democrat, California): This is real personal. And my point is that if members want to fight among each other, at least we signed up for this. But to retaliate against innocent staff is just reckless and irresponsible.
KELLY: Through a spokesman, Peter Hoekstra declined to comment for this report. He did write in a letter this week to Harman that, quote, "My first responsibility is to protect national security and America's secrets. I take that obligation seriously."
So where do things go from here? Hoekstra is now proposing an extensive inquiry, looking at staff e-mails and phone records, hunting for unauthorized contacts with the media. The probe would focus on Larry Hanauer, but according to the ground rules Hoekstra has drafted, it could expand to improper conduct by any committee staffer. Hanauer's lawyer has some problems with that.
Mr. JONATHAN TURLEY (Larry Hanauer's Attorney): The procedures laid out by the chairman clearly violate federal law.
KELLY: Attorney Jonathan Turley. He says, for example, searching his client's computer is extremely problematic.
Mr. TURLEY: You know, on this computer happen to be files that are attorney-client priviledged material. Under these procedures, they would just go willy-nilly through all the e-mails and files, looking at anything they want. You can't do that.
KELLY: Hoekstra's spokesman, Jamal Ware, disagrees. He says his boss is, quote, "carrying out an inquiry consistent with his responsibilities under committee rules; whereas we're dealing with national security here, we are obligated to look into what happened."
Meanwhile, Larry Hanauer, the man at the center of the controversy, is still showing up for work, but he's relegated for now to unclassify non-political issues. Lawyer Jonathan Turley says his client just wants his name cleared and his old job back. That may take some time, given an atmosphere one Democratic congressional official describes as, quote, "getting more poisonous by the day."
Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
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