Republicans Push Back on Leak Probe

Posted February 10, 2004 at 6:23pm

The investigation into the Judiciary Committee’s leaked memos appears to be narrowly focused on a few staffers who allegedly accessed thousands of documents improperly, with a sharp tilt toward the initial memos that ended up being leaked to the media.

After almost four hours of briefings by Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle on Monday and Tuesday, Senators said the investigators have compiled a detailed account of thousands of memos that were taken from the Democrats. While Republicans pushed back Tuesday against Democratic assertions that the computer downloading was “probably criminal,” they acknowledged that the work done by at least two former Judiciary Committee staffers was improper.

“It appears to be at least limited in terms of the number of people involved but quite expansive in terms of the number of documents,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a Judiciary member who attended a more than two-hour briefing Tuesday morning.

Cornyn said there is still an open question as to how many staffers, Republican or Democratic, might have accessed files or memos other than the two former aides who have already admitted their hand in the case.

“It may never be possible to determine the scope of the number of staffers looking at what all members thought were confidential files,” said Cornyn, who added that Pickle confirmed for the Senators that the files were taken over an 18-month period that immediately followed the Democratic takeover of the majority in June 2001.

Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said the files never should have been taken. “Every member of the committee is a victim,” he said.

Democrats and Republicans fought over whether there was enough for a criminal case in the probe. Hatch said “talk of criminal prosecution was premature,” given what the Committee has heard in briefings so far.

“I don’t know of any prosecutor who would bring that case knowing what I know now,” he said.

Cornyn said none of the more than 100 staffers who have been interviewed in the probe have been read their rights, making it hard for him to believe that this was a criminal case.

He noted that a full-blown criminal case, likely carried out by the Department of Justice, would have to retrace many of the same steps and interview the same subjects again under oath. “I don’t think that’s likely,” he said.

Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), chairman of the Republican Conference and the leadership’s leading advocate of a get-tough position on the issue of Democratic filibusters of judicial nominees, countered that the “real aggrievement here” was the content of the memos of Democratic “collusion” with outside groups to block nominees.

He urged the media to “look at where the real potential criminal” behavior was with the Democrats, repeating a refrain from conservative activists who are trying to lend support to a complaint filed with the Senate Ethics Committee regarding Democratic work with the liberal groups.

A critical remaining issue for Pickle will be his ability to determine the route through which the Democratic memos ended up in the media and on conservative groups’ Web sites in mid-November, a follow-the-memo portion of the investigation that he has little authority to conduct.

For instance, a few weeks back Pickle’s investigators questioned a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, Melanie Kirkpatrick. In a subsequent interview with Roll Call, Kirkpatrick said the investigators wanted to know where the paper got the memos that they excerpted in a Nov. 14 editorial.

Investigators also asked questions about how much she spoke with Manuel Miranda, a former aide to Hatch and Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who resigned last week after admitting that he had read some of the memos and knew that a legislative assistant was accessing many more memos.

Kirkpatrick said she declined to answer any of the questions from Pickle’s investigators, which apparently was the same response they received that same week when they spoke with staff at the Committee for Justice, whose aides confirmed that the investigators called their office but declined all comment on the probe. The committee was formed by conservatives to fight the battle for President Bush’s nominees, launching TV ad campaigns and maintaining close contact with reporters and other conservative groups working on the issue.

As an internal investigator of the Senate, Pickle has no authority to compel the outsiders to talk to his office. He also has no ability to compel an interview with anyone who might have worked for the committee during the period in question but has since left the panel for work in the administration or in the private sector.

Cornyn said Pickle sought out some advice from members of the committee — the full panel was briefed Tuesday, while four Democrats received a separate briefing Monday — about how far he could and should take his investigation.

“They need some guidance from the committee about what the scope of that should be,” Cornyn said, adding that without any guidance, “This could go on a long, long time.”

Pickle said Tuesday that his “goal” was still to file a full report to Leahy and Hatch by the end of this month, but that it was “not a firm” deadline.

Pickle said he was following all leads, but that his team was most thoroughly examining the “initial ones,” the memos that hit the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, the news pages of the Washington Times and conservative Web sites last November.

“We’re focused on the documents that appeared in the press,” he said.

Hatch agreed, saying that the thousands of memos that were downloaded are not the focus of the probe. “I haven’t been briefed on those [other documents] and I don’t even think they’ve looked at the content of those,” he said.

That decision will upset conservative activists, who have been promoting an ethics complaint filed by Miranda on Friday that said there were many unpublicized memos that showed unethical activity by Judiciary Democrats working with outside interest groups.

His complaint accused Democrats of “public corruption” and said the other memos, which are in Pickle’s possession, could demonstrate a case for how interest groups pledged Democrats financial support for blocking certain nominees before the 2002 elections.

Miranda remained defiant Tuesday, saying his actions did not break any laws. “If anyone has committed a crime, it is them,” he said in reference to Democrats.

Pickle confirmed that federal law regarding perjury and lying to federal officers would likely apply to anyone who perjured themselves before his Secret Service agents, who have been detailed to the Sergeant-at-Arms office and are officially considered temporary SAA officers.

If his investigation concludes there is criminal behavior, an illegal accessing of the computer files or distribution of those files, Pickle said there are “mechanisms in place” to transfer the authority of the investigation over to federal officials. But he declined to elaborate on them.

“It’d be premature for me to say it’s criminal,” he said.