Judiciary GOP Supports Probe

Senators Break With Activists on Computer Hacking Case


By Helen Dewar

Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, February 13, 2004; Page A05


Breaking ranks with conservative activists, several Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans joined Democrats yesterday in supporting an investigation into the infiltration of Democratic files on judicial nominations by GOP committee staffers.


Despite some expectations that the normally quarrelsome committee's first public discussion of the investigation could set off political fireworks, the session was unusually harmonious, marked by bipartisan expressions of outrage over computer snooping.


"Conservatives who offer justification for this based on politics have missed the boat," said Sen. Lindsey O.  Graham (R-S.C.). "As a conservative, it runs against my philosophy of what the law is all about."


The investigation, conducted by Senate Sergeant-at-Arms William H. Pickle, should proceed "wherever it goes, and let the chips fall where they may," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). "No senator can permit unethical behavior."


"I don't want my confidential files looked at by anyone else," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.).


From 2001 to 2003, committee sources said, two Republican committee staffers exploited a computer flaw to access thousands of Democratic strategy memos and leaked their contents to sympathetic publications. Both staffers have since left their congressional jobs.


In a joint statement, Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the ranking Democrat, said: "While it is premature to judge whether any crime has been committed, it is clear that unethical conduct has occurred." Hatch said he had personally expressed regrets to Democratic senators and to staffers whose files were improperly accessed.


Others, including Cornyn, suggested a further investigation by law enforcement authorities.


Although not all Republicans spoke up, it appeared that Hatch had strong bipartisan support on the panel for pursuing the probe, despite criticism from some conservatives for his role in triggering the investigation.


Hatch told reporters after the meeting that his computer files also had been accessed but declined to say who was responsible. He repeated an earlier statement, which infuriated some conservatives, that he was "mortified that this improper, unethical and simply unacceptable breach of confidential files occurred on my watch."


Some conservative advocacy groups say any investigation should focus on the contents of the Democratic memos -- which they describe as proof of Democrats' collusion with liberal interest groups on judicial nominations -- instead of dwelling on GOP staffers accessing the files.


While some Republican senators have said more attention should be focused on the Democratic memos, none mentioned this issue yesterday. But they did suggest that partisan hostilities on the committee may have encouraged young staffers to cut corners. "We are part of the problem because an atmosphere of politics has crept into our deliberations, especially on judges," Kyl said.


Democrats thanked Hatch, welcomed comments from other Republicans and continued to speak of the computer snooping as a major scandal. Sen. Edward M.  Kennedy (D-Mass.) compared it to Watergate. "In those days, break-ins required physical presence, burglar's tools, lookouts and getaway cars. Today, theft may only require a computer and the skills to use it," he said. But, he added, "a break-in is still a break-in."


Copyright 2004 The Washington Post Company



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