The chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence told Senate leaders yesterday that Congress should hold off on a probe of the disclosure of classified information on secret prisons to The Washington Post until the Justice Department completes its own inquiry.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said he will "respectfully" request that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) back off a strongly worded request that a bicameral investigation into the disclosure be convened immediately. Frist spokeswoman Amy Call said the majority leader had not decided how to respond. "He always takes what his chairmen say into consideration," she said.
Frist and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) surprised both Roberts and House intelligence committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) with a joint letter demanding a House-Senate inquiry after the Nov. 2 publication of a Post article detailing a web of secret prisons in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, maintained by the CIA to detain suspected terrorists.
The CIA general counsel's office also has notified the Justice Department that a release of classified information took place in connection with The Post's report. After the CIA details what it sees as the damage done by the article, Justice prosecutors will determine whether a criminal investigation is warranted.
Asked how long that could take, Roberts joked, "Decades," indicating he is in no rush to convene his own inquiry. Hoekstra said he has not decided how to proceed.
After months of partisan charges over the White House release of CIA operative Valerie Plame's name and false information on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, disclosure of classified information has become an issue among Republicans.
Hoekstra said some Republican lawmakers were livid when a top administration intelligence officer inadvertently released the annual budget for U.S. intelligence operations, a figure that is classified and closely held by lawmakers who draft the budget.
At an intelligence conference last week in San Antonio, Mary Margaret Graham, deputy director of national intelligence, said the annual intelligence budget is $44 billion, a slip witnessed and recounted by a U.S. News & World Report writer.
Keeping the figure secret was a contentious issue as Congress retooled the intelligence structure after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said Hoekstra, who battled to maintain the budget figure's classification.
Some lawmakers want to see disciplinary action against Graham. Hoekstra said he personally raised concerns with Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte.