The FBI is seeking interviews with top House Members from both parties to determine whether they leaked details of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program to The New York Times, further fanning the flames of an already tense relationship between Capitol Hill and the Bush administration.
Those being targeted for interviews include GOP and Democratic leaders, as well as the chairmen and ranking member of the Intelligence committee. Altogether, 15 senior Members and Senators were briefed about the existence of the NSA program before the Times first disclosed it in a Dec. 16 article, according to briefing records released last week by John Negroponte, director of the Office of National Intelligence.
It is unclear what level of interest the FBI has at this time in speaking with Senators who were briefed about the NSA program, although one senior Senate Republican said he expects that the FBI will interview current and former Senators about the leak as well.
The request for FBI interviews has angered some in Congress who see it as yet another example of the increasingly aggressive tactics being used by the Justice Department and federal investigators in their dealings with lawmakers. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has vehemently denounced an FBI raid last weekend on Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-La.) office, and three House committees have objected to a request for documents and staffer interviews by the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego as part of the criminal probe into former Rep. Duke Cunningham’s (R-Calif.) activities.
When asked about her knowledge of the FBI inquiry into lawmakers’ contacts with the Times, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, would only say, “There is no credible claim that anyone in Congress leaked anything.”
“So far as I know, there has been no request in writing,” Harman added. “I urge the Justice Department to carefully consider separation-of-powers issues and the appearance of intimidation before proceeding any further.”
House Intelligence Chairman Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who has retained his own personal lawyer in the case, said he was aware that the FBI wanted to talk to him about the NSA leak, but added he has not yet met with agents conducting the probe. Whether the interviews with lawmakers will actually occur, and what the ground rules for those sessions would be, is the subject of ongoing negotiations between the Justice Department and Congressional lawyers, said Hoekstra.
While acknowledging his support for rooting out those who leak classified information, Hoekstra expressed concerns over whether having the FBI question the lawmakers who oversee their agency would upset the balance of power between Congress and the administration.
“I am passionate about finding out who leaked what and who is breaking the law,” the Michigan Republican said. “With that in mind, we need to be very careful in protecting the prerogatives of the House.”
Hoekstra said his decision to retain an attorney was based on an abundance of caution, not fear that he would be implicated in the probe.
“After all the stuff that’s been happening lately, you don’t talk to the Justice Department without a lawyer,” said Hoekstra, referring to the FBI’s raid on Jefferson’s office.
Hoekstra noted that he had been interviewed by the FBI several years ago as part of an investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of NSA telephone intercepts given to the House-Senate Intelligence Committees’ examination of pre-9/11 intelligence gathering.
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.