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Hatch Rejects FBI Hearings

Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has turned down a bipartisan request from three senior Senators for hearings on the FBI’s handling of Katrina Leung, an alleged Chinese spy who was also a longtime FBI informant. Hatch’s decision quickly earned a sharp rebuke from his Democratic counterpart on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.).

Leahy, along with GOP Sens. Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa), both members of the Judiciary Committee, asked Hatch in an April 22 letter to hold hearings on the FBI’s treatment of Leung, a prominent Los Angeles businesswoman who was arrested recently on charges of illegally copying a classified document with intent to harm the United States.

Leung, who has raised funds for a number of GOP lawmakers, including House Rules Chairman David Dreier

(R-Calif.), has been an FBI informant for two decades and was paid $1.7 million during that period by the bureau for Chinese government secrets, according to press reports.

But after a yearlong internal probe, the FBI now believes Leung may have been a double agent. Leung reportedly tipped off the Chinese government to several highly sensitive FBI counterintelligence investigations and may even have helped derail the 1997 Senate Governmental Affairs Committee probe into whether the Chinese government tried to funnel money into U.S. political campaigns, including the 1996 Clinton-Gore presidential effort.

Hatch, who has been bogged down in partisan Senate battles over judicial nominations and crafting asbestos liability legislation, has decided that his committee is too busy to hold any hearings on the Leung case.

“I’ve got too much on my plate right now,” said the Utah Republican when asked about his response to the Leahy-Specter-Grassley letter.

Hatch actually complimented FBI Director Robert Mueller for his handling of the Leung matter.

“[Mueller] has handled this very expeditiously, he’s been very forthcoming,” said Hatch, who added that he had received a private briefing from Mueller just before Leung was arrested on April 9.

Leahy expressed surprise at Hatch’s decision not to hold any hearings, particularly in light of the gravity of the allegations against Leung and several former FBI agents with whom she has been romantically linked. Intelligence experts now fear that Leung might have fed false information that could even have made its way to the Oval Office.

“Considering the seriousness of the charges and how they could affect national security, we should find the time,” said the Vermont Democrat. “Considering some of the stuff we’ve spent our time on, we should make this a top priority.”

In their letter, Leahy, Specter and Grassley slammed the bureau itself, although they steered clear of attacking Mueller, saying the Leung case may reflect “a broad, systematic inattention to security inside the FBI.”

They also cited accusations of FBI foul-ups contained in the government’s affidavit spelling out its case against Leung, including the arrest of two former FBI agents who reportedly had affairs with Leung even as they oversaw her activity as an FBI informant. “If even a portion of the allegations raised in the public affidavit are true, we cannot afford to wait until yet another breach of national security occurs before we work with the FBI to improve security and the handling of confidential informants,” wrote Leahy, Specter and Grassley.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), the top Democrat on the Governmental Affairs Committee, has also urged Attorney General John Ashcroft and Mueller to investigate the case on their own.

DOJ officials say that is exactly what is occurring right now, and a counterintelligence expert who worked on the Aldrich Ames case has been brought on to help run an FBI task force handling the Leung matter. Ames, a former CIA officer, was convicted of passing U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union and Russian government. The FBI ran the Ames investigation.

A spokeswoman for Senate Governmental Affairs Chairman Susan Collins (R-Maine) said the panel has no plans to hold hearings on Leung, despite the committee’s role in the 1997 campaign finance investigation.

FBI and Justice Department officials appear to have made a concerted effort to inform lawmakers about what has occurred so far in the Leung investigation. Mueller and officials from DOJ’s criminal investigation unit personally briefed some members of the House and Senate Judiciary, Intelligence and Appropriations committees when Leung and Smith were arrested.

So far, none of those panels has scheduled any hearings, although Democrats privately grumble that points to GOP hypocrisy on the whole issue.

“You can be sure that if this were the Clinton administration, [Republicans] would be calling for heads to roll,” said a top Senate Democratic aide. “And they would be right.”

But most lawmakers are acting cautiously before taking a public stance on the Leung case.

“Let’s see what happens first,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who added that the Justice Department probe should be allowed to proceed before Congress jumps into the debate.

Taken into custody with Leung was former FBI Agent James J. Smith, a onetime counterintelligence agent for the bureau who oversaw Leung’s work as an informant. Smith, who allegedly had a long-running affair with Leung, has been accused of allowing access to classified information through gross negligence.

A second ex-FBI agent, William Cleveland, also has admitted having an affair with Leung, and has resigned from his decade-long job as chief of security for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

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