WASHINGTON – Charges of criminal espionage and political corruption continued to divide the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday as it debated the fate of President Bush's judicial nominees.
Driving the controversy is an ongoing investigation by the Senate sergeant-at-arms (search), who has been exploring whether any Republican staff members on the committee improperly accessed Democratic staff memos that were stored on a shared computer drive.
On Thursday, Democrats on the committee took the opportunity to speak out on what they called the "theft" of the memos, saying the act was "probably criminal." They stopped short of demanding a criminal investigation.
"Those who spied and stole internal, confidential drafts and memos of their Democratic counterparts bring dishonor to this committee and to the Senate," said the committee's ranking member, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. "Taking things that do not belong to you is wrong, and there is no excusing or whitewashing it. ... In my view, these actions are probably criminal and are likely to become the subject of criminal investigation."
"It seems likely to me criminal violations have occurred," said Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. "This was no accident, this was no isolated inadvertent happenstance. ... This was concerted, intentional, malicious action."
Kennedy then likened the incident to the Watergate (search) break-in, reminding the chamber that it led to Richard Nixon's 1974 resignation. Noting that times had changed, he said all that was now needed for a break-in was computer skills, rather than a getaway car:
"A break-in is still a break-in, and if we don't draw the line, the real victims will be those on both sides of the aisle," Kennedy said.
While there was a lot of talk about unethical actions and the impact on the integrity of the committee, what had promised to be an explosive session of the panel ended up being somewhat muted by the fact that the four Republican senators present shared the Democrats' concern. One even described it as "an improper breach."
Committee chairman Orrin Hatch (search), R-Utah, called for an investigation of the breach in November, saying he was "mortified" that the breach occurred on his watch. But Hatch did not dwell on the memos' contents, which has earned him criticism from conservatives who say the real scandal lies within.
"I can understand why the Democrats would want to have the circumstances of the leak investigated, and I hope all the facts will come out," said C. Boyden Gray, former legal counsel to President Bush and head of Committee for Justice, a conservative legal group fighting for Senate confirmation of Bush's nominees. "What I really do not like however, is the notion that we should not also be looking at the content of the memos themselves."
Among those trying to deflect attention to the memos is Manuel Miranda (search), the former Republican committee staffer who found the unprotected memos. Miranda resigned Friday as counsel to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
Miranda has acknowledged reading some Democratic staff memos, but maintains he did nothing illegal. He and outside groups have filed requests with the Senate Ethics Committee and the Justice Department demanding a probe of the corruption allegedly documented in the memos, and also of political interference in the judicial nominating process.
The memos showed that Democratic staff members referred to Bush nominees as "Nazis" and advised blocking one nominee because "he is Latino."
Fox News has learned that one memo recounts how Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, now a presidential candidate, allegedly urged Leahy to delay a vote on one Bush nominee, supposedly because trial lawyers' groups and the NAACP (search) would, if the vote occurred, curtail campaign spending for Democratic candidates in North Carolina.
Some see that as an illegal introduction of campaign financing into the judicial-nomination process.
An aide in Edwards' Senate office said he has no knowledge of any such memo nor does it sound like something Edwards would request, in particular because the NAACP does not donate directly to political campaigns.
On Thursday, Hatch responded to conservatives' criticism of his investigation into the breach.
"I initiated it simply because it was the right thing to do ... because we need to ensure the sanctity of this committee," he said. "I made it for the betterment of this institution, not for political purposes."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he agreed.
"Somebody needs to be fired," he said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., credited Hatch for his decision, calling him "steadfast and forthright from the beginning," but then criticized his staff.
"To concertedly steal memos ... raises real questions about the ethical values of the young people who come to work for this committee," she said.
Sergeant-at-Arms William Pickle, who seized the hard drive as evidence, is set to deliver a report to Hatch by the end of the month.
"There is no doubt that what was done by certain people was certainly improper" Pickle told the Associated Press. "There is no way of getting around it."
Fox News' James Rosen and Julie Asher contributed to this report.