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Congressional Democrats Hammer Rove

Congressional Democrats escalated their assault on White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove on Wednesday, pressing for the immediate suspension of Rove’s security credentials and a new internal White House probe into whether Rove leaked the name of a former CIA operative, Valerie Plame, to reporters.

Separately, in a surprise development, Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) announced that he would hold a hearing next Wednesday on journalist “shield” legislation, featuring testimony from some of the key figures in the Plame probe.

Specter has called on Matt Cooper, the Time correspondent who discussed Plame’s involvement with Rove, to testify before his panel next Wednesday. Cooper avoided jail last week after his lawyer decided that statements by Rove’s lawyers freed him from his confidentiality pledge to the powerful White House aide.

Specter has also called for an appearance by Time Publisher Norman Pearlstine, who made the decision to turn over to Cooper’s notes and e-mails with regard to his work on a Plame story to a federal grand jury. Those e-mails, as first reported over the weekend by Newsweek, have been at the center of this week’s firestorm surrounding Rove and his discussions with reporters about Plame.

Specter’s hearing comes as the political furor over Rove continues to build. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Democratic Conference Secretary Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) on Wednesday wrote to Andrew Card, White House chief of staff, asking Card to “launch a new internal investigation immediately” into the source of the Plame leak.

The four Senate Democrats also accused Rove of damaging national security for “partisan reasons.”

Columnist Robert Novak reported in July 2003 that “two senior administration officials” had told him that Plame was a CIA operative. In the days following the Novak article, Card led his own investigation into the source of the leak, although the results were never publicly released.

All nine Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee also asked Bush to suspend Rove’s security clearance, at least until special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has determined whether he or anyone else at the White House leaked Plame’s name in order to retaliate against her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. It is illegal to knowingly and deliberately disclose the identity of covert CIA operatives.

Wilson has charged that Bush administration officials overstated efforts by the government of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to acquire African uranium as part of the justification for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Bush’s supporters denied Wilson’s claims, and in the last two days they have sought to undermine Wilson’s credibility. Wilson was reportedly asked by Plame to go to Africa to look into the uranium allegations.

White House officials have stated that Bush still retains confidence in Rove, although the president declined to address the issue when pressed by reporters on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Republicans on Capitol Hill were far more vocal in their defense of Rove than they had been previously. After Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman urged them to speak out publicly, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) dismissed Democratic criticism of Rove as partisan sniping.

“This is typical of Democrats. They smell blood and they act like sharks,” DeLay said in an interview on Fox News. “Karl Rove is a good man. He was doing his job. … I don’t see that he has done anything wrong.”

As for the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Specter has asked for an appearance by the deputy attorney general, James Comey, to talk about journalist “shield” legislation. After then-Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself from the Plame case in 2003, Comey oversaw the case and eventually appointed Fitzgerald to handle the investigation as a special prosecutor. Fitzgerald, whose usual jurisdiction is Illinois, was a deputy of Comey’s when he was U.S. Attorney in Manhattan.

It’s unclear whether the key players — Comey, Cooper and Pearlstine — will be able to shed much light on the nature of the Plame investigation and may decline to answer questions about Rove because of the ongoing nature of the probe.

The underlying shield legislation being reviewed during next week’s hearing will be a bill introduced in the Senate by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and in the House by Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.).

But that legislation may just be the backdrop for what could be a raucous session, as it will be difficult for Specter to prevent Judiciary Democrats from taking the opportunity to grill the trio of witnesses about what they know about Rove’s role in revealing Plame’s identity.

A pair of Judiciary Committee Democrats — Durbin and Schumer — held a press conference Wednesday to denounce Rove.

Even if Rove’s revelation doesn’t measure up to a crime in Fitzgerald’s probe, Durbin said that Rove had committed an act that warrants his removal from the White House staff. “They are held to a higher standard,” Durbin said of White House officials.

Asked about Fitzgerald’s performance in the investigation — which has come under fire for zealously seeking to obtain journalists’ testimony about their sources — Durbin and Schumer vehemently defended the prosecutor. “He’s the straightest shooter I’ve ever known as a prosecutor,” Durbin said, adding, “I will rely on his judgement.”

Schumer, who knew Fitzgerald from his Manhattan days, noted that many in the press corps disapprove of his methods regarding Miller’s jailing and Cooper’s compelled testimony, but he defended his tactics. “This guy is a prosecutor’s prosecutor,” Schumer said. “Nothing stops him.”

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