House panel sidetracks resolution calling for spy probe

Under a thick partisan overcast, the House International Relations Committee on Wednesday sidetracked a resolution calling for a congressional probe of the circumstances surrounding the public outing of a CIA agent whose husband had debunked a Bush administration claim that Iraq obtained uranium from Africa.

By a 24-22 margin, the GOP-controlled committee voted along straight party lines to report the resolution adversely to the House. In effect, such votes quash any chance that a measure like this would ever be taken up or, in this case, that a prompt election-year congressional inquiry into this case would be launched.

In thwarting the Democrats' proposal to embark on the investigation, International Relations Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., insisted that an ongoing grand jury inquiry could be compromised by a parallel congressional probe.

"It would be irresponsible for this committee to allow [the resolution] to jeopardize an ongoing criminal investigation by the Department of Justice," Hyde said. "That is a matter best left to the grand jury."

The grand jury's inquiry is being managed by federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald of Chicago. Committee Democrats, led by Rep. Howard Berman of California, argued in vain that the existence of criminal proceedings had rarely deterred House Republicans when former President Clinton was in office. He cited several instances when the House Government Reform and Judiciary committees initiated probes of Clinton policies and activities even while special prosecutors were looking at the same cases.

Several Democrats also contended that Congress had an obligation to investigate what they called a serious threat to the safety of intelligence operatives and the security of the country when agents' identities are revealed.

"A congressional investigation would not impair the grand jury," Berman said. "This branch of government is not a potted plant that should sit back and wait for years and years to get the information it needs to safeguard our security."

Two other committees in the House -- Intelligence and Judiciary -- have likewise voted to sidetrack the resolution sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J. The Judiciary Committee on Wednesday voted 17-8 to report the measure adversely, as did the Intelligence Committee by a 10-3 margin when it met Jan. 28. The House Armed Services Committee plans to take up the measure on Wednesday, with the panel's Republican majority assuring the same outcome.

The dispute arose last year after a newspaper columnist published the agent's name, Valerie Plame, prompting charges that she was compromised in retaliation for a report by her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson IV, indicating that the White House had falsely maintained that Iraq had purchased uranium from Africa for use in making nuclear weapons.

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