updated 10/20/2006 12:31:27 AM ET 2006-10-20T04:31:27

The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee has suspended a Democratic staff member pending an investigation into whether he leaked a high-level intelligence assessment to the news media.

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The committee’s top Democrat said the suspension was “without basis.”

The staff member, who was not identified, was suspended this week by Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., his spokesman said Thursday evening. The aide is being denied access to classified information pending the outcome of a review, said the spokesman, Jamal Ware.

The leak to The New York Times of a National Intelligence Estimate on global terror trends caused a political uproar last month. In the assessment, completed in April, analysts from the government’s 16 spy agencies concluded that the Iraq war has become a “cause celebre” for Islamic extremists, breeding deep resentment of the U.S. that probably will get worse before it gets better.

President Bush suggested the document was leaked for “political purposes” weeks before the midterm elections. He later made public four pages of the estimate’s key findings.

‘Merits a review’
In a letter to Hoekstra dated Sept. 29, Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., a committee member, said the Democratic staffer requested the document from National Intelligence Director John Negroponte three days before a Sept. 23 story by the Times on its conclusions.

“I have no credible information to say any classified information was leaked from the committee’s minority staff, but the implications of such would be dramatic,” LaHood said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press. “This may, in fact, be only coincidence, and simply ’look bad.’ But coincidence, in this town, is rare.”

Ware, Hoekstra’s spokesman, said: “Chairman Hoekstra considers security highly important, and the coincidence certainly merits a review.”

The Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Jane Harman of California, wrote to Hoekstra that she was “appalled” by his action, which was “without basis.”

“I demand that you immediately reinstate the staffer’s access to classified information,” she said.

A conference call to the committee’s nine Democrats on Wednesday to inform them of the aide’s suspension prompted outrage, said two congressional officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about internal committee business.

Sour relations
The officials said that the National Intelligence Estimate was marked “secret,” rather than “top secret” or another more restrictive classification. As a result, thousands of people would have had access to it, including the intelligence, armed services and international relations committees of the House.

The officials said the staff member acted appropriately in requesting the document on behalf of a committee member.

Relations between Democrats and Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have soured in recent weeks.

On Tuesday, Harman unilaterally released the executive summary of an independent investigator’s review into the actions of a jailed former congressman, Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif. The report found that he abused his position on the committee to help ensure lucrative contracts went to associates, in exchange for bribes.

Hoekstra called Harman’s decision to release the document “disturbing and beyond the pale.”

Bush allies have been on a campaign to stop leaks to the news media, particularly targeting the New York Times.

In June, the House approved a Republican-drafted resolution condemning news organizations for revealing a covert government program to track terrorist financing, saying the disclosure had “placed the lives of Americans in danger.”

The resolution, which passed on a largely party-line vote, did not specifically name the news organizations, but it was aimed at the Times and other news media that reported earlier that month on a secret CIA-Treasury program to track millions of financial records in search of terrorists.

The New York Times did not respond to a telephone message seeking comment Thursday night.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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