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Durbin Accuses White House of Intimidation

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) sharply criticized the White House on Tuesday of falsely accusing him of leaking sensitive intelligence information and leading a campaign to discredit him for speaking out against the administration’s handling of the Iraqi war.

Using the Senate floor to air his grievance before a national television audience, Durbin claimed White House press officials told reporters Friday that Republican Senators were considering taking steps to try to remove him from the Intelligence Committee — an action supported by the administration — for speaking publicly about a closed-door briefing with CIA Director George Tenet.

The Illinois Democrat described the White House efforts as an attempt to “intimidate” people such as himself for criticizing President Bush’s handling of the war and vowed not to be bullied by the administration’s tactics.

“If Members of the Senate are going to be subject to this kind of effort by the White House and discouraged from meeting our responsibility, I don’t think we are doing the people’s business,” Durbin said in an interview after delivering his biting floor speech. “When it goes to the point of questioning my integrity over my service on the Intelligence Committee that really is as serious as it gets.”

“There is no truth to that at all,” Allen Abney, a spokesman for the White House, said of Durbin’s allegations.

Durbin’s salvo is the latest flashpoint between Democrats and Republicans in the debate over whether White House officials willfully allowed Bush to declare in his 2003 State of the Union address that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was trying to purchase uranium from Africa to build nuclear weapons.

The Africa information promoted by British intelligence has since been discredited, and in recent weeks the public has learned U.S. intelligence officials were skeptical of the information before Bush delivered his national address in January. In recent weeks, a handful of Congressional Democrats and candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination have blasted the White House over the January speech, calling into question whether Bush was being truthful as he sought unequivocal support to wage war against Iraq.

So far, no effort has been made to try to force Durbin to leave the committee, and most Republican Senators refused to discuss the situation. A senior Democratic Senator warned that any effort to try to force Durbin to step down would result in a full-blown political fight.

“The fact that Senator Durbin asks tough questions and perhaps uncomfortable questions ought not be a predicate for having anyone suggest he should be removed from the committee,” said Senate Democratic Policy Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.). “He is a very valuable member of the Intelligence Committee, very smart and very aggressive, and it would be entirely inappropriate for the Republicans to try and take him off of that committee.

“The decision of committee assignments is our decision, not theirs,” Dorgan added.

But a senior GOP Senate aide said many Republican Senators have indeed discussed whether they should try to reprimand Durbin.

“There are rules, laws and conventions about this stuff and Members are wondering how close Dick Durbin is to the line,” said the aide, who demanded anonymity. “It is not just White House spin.”

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he thinks Durbin had “probably gone too far” in his public statements he made last week about Tenet’s testimony.

“I am concerned that there is too much getting out there that should not be, and I hope that Senator Durbin and all members of the Intelligence Committee will be very careful,” said Lott, who is a member of the Intelligence Committee.

Another member of the Intelligence panel, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), said she has asked Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) to clarify the rules about what committee members can publicly discuss following a closed-door briefing.

“There is a concern among Members of the committee about the type of disclosures that are occurring that are attributed to Senators on the committee in the aftermath of last week’s hearing,” she said. “We all have to operate by the same rules.”

Specifically, Republicans are grumbling about Durbin’s decision to reveal in an interview Thursday with ABC’s “Good Morning America” that Tenet told the Intelligence panel a White House official insisted the Africa claim be put in the State of the Union speech. Later that day, Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, described Durbin’s claim as “nonsense.”

“It was clearly a second-day effort to put pressure on me because of what I have been saying publicly,” Durbin said of the White House’s alleged smear campaign.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a senior member of the Intelligence panel, described Durbin’s accusations of a White House attempt to discredit him as “typical political talk.”

“I know the White House about as well as anybody, and I haven’t seen any of that whatsoever,” Hatch said.

But Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) defended her colleague and said the Bush administration has a history of trying to intimidate its critics.

“Senator Durbin is an extraordinarily effective Senator and he cares deeply about the situation we find ourselves in and I have total confidence in him,” she said. “Why wouldn’t they strong-arm Senators? They strong-arm everybody else.”

Interestingly, Hatch, himself was criticized for talking publicly about information regarding Osama bin Laden following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“We have to be careful talking about things that come before the committee,” Hatch said Tuesday. “That is all I can say. Mistakes are sometimes made. Misunderstandings occur.”

Since Sept.11, Congress and the White House have been sparring about intelligence leaks regarding the war on terrorism. The FBI opened an investigation in 2002 at the request of Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), the respective chairmen of their chambers’ Intelligence Committees, after Vice President Cheney complained about Members leaking information from a closed-door meeting with National Security Agency Director, Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden. The FBI never discovered the source of the leak, but the probe caused Members to question why it was allowing the executive branch to investigate the legislative branch.

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