- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

The Senate Judiciary Committee members agreed last night to skirt any decision on how to proceed with the investigation into Republican snooping of Democratic computer files.

Democrats and Republicans arrived at the decision after spending the day in a series of meetings quarrelling over minor details in three versions of a letter to be sent to Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Instead, any decision about how to proceed will be left in the hands of Senate Sergeant-at-Arms William H. Pickle, who recently concluded an investigation into how the internal memos were obtained by Republicans.

The report found that the downloading of files was made possible by a faulty security system that allowed unfettered access to many Republican and Democratic files. Left vague is whether any laws were broken.

Mr. Pickle issued a report last week that found two Senate Republican staffers — Manuel Miranda and Jason Lundell — had snooped on Democrats during an 18-month period and might have been involved in distributing memos downloaded from Democratic computer servers.

The sergeant-at-arms, who has been sharply criticized for distributing a confidential version of that report to journalists last week, must now decide whether to refer criminal charges to a prosecutor, allow for a second more-thorough investigation, or do nothing at all.

In essence, most senators agreed that they wanted to have someone review Mr. Pickle’s findings to determine whether any crimes may have occurred.

“There’s clearly consensus on this committee that we should refer this over,” said Sen. Mike DeWine, Ohio Republican, during a committee meeting yesterday morning.

Yesterday morning, most Judiciary members agreed that a professional outside of the Senate, and likely in the Justice Department, should investigate the matter further for potential criminal charges. It was not clear whether they would go so far as endorsing a special counsel, however, which Democrats favor.

Democrats broke from talks with Republicans late Wednesday and signed an initial letter to Mr. Ashcroft, asking him to appoint a special counsel outside of his department to conduct a criminal investigation.

“We believe that the unauthorized accessing, reading, downloading, printing and use of these files constitute violations of multiple federal and local criminal laws and warrant criminal investigation,” the letter read. “Only a special counsel can investigate this matter in a manner that will have credibility with the public.”

Judiciary Republicans, in turn, issued their own letter yesterday morning to Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, arguing the matter should be referred to a professional prosecutor to determine whether criminal prosecution is necessary.

Republicans criticized Democrats during the morning meeting for backing out of private talks and going ahead with their own letter. In response, Democrats attempted to assuage the situation.

“I would like to see this end on a bipartisan basis,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, conceded the Democrats’ letter “may have gone a little overboard.”

Democrats said they could agree to ask the Justice Department to refer the memo case to someone like Peter Fitzgerald, a U.S. attorney who has investigated another high-profile case into how a CIA agent’s name was leaked to the press. Mr. Durbin suggested both sides send a letter similar to the Republicans’, but with a few sentences recommending that a special counsel like Mr. Fitzgerald handle the case.

Key panel Republicans agreed. “I don’t have any problem with Mr. Fitzgerald … handling this,” Mr. DeWine said. “Fitzgerald is fine with me,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. “We could all probably agree that we find him to be professional and independent.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Miranda’s attorney, Adam Augustine Carter, criticized the Pickle report as “seriously flawed.” Among other things, he said those interviewed for the report were not subject to cross-examination and other protocol, and the report had numerous unsupported conclusions of law, false inferences and a few instances where the facts were wrong.

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