WASHINGTON – A Democratic staff member on the House Intelligence Committee has been suspended by the Republican chairman of that committee over concerns about the leak of a secret intelligence estimate, and political mudslinging has become a central part of the investigation into the security breach.
The unidentified staff member is Larry Hanauer, FOX News learned Friday. Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., suspended Hanauer earlier this week and won't allow him access to classified information until a review can be completed, said Jamal Ware, Hoekstra's spokesman.
The suspension drew heated response from the committee's top Democrat, Jane Harman, who said she was "appalled" by the suspension and called for his immediate reinstatement.
The political spat was heightened further when Harman released portions of a document earlier this week related to the investigation into the criminal dealings of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham.
And another committee Republican told FOX News in an interview that the investigation he requested that led to Hanauer's suspension was political payback.
According to letters released Friday, Hoekstra said he began looking into the leak of the National Intelligence Estimate after a story based on the secret document on global terror trends appeared Sept. 23 in The New York Times.
The leak 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, who suggested the document was leaked for "political purposes" weeks before the midterm elections, later made public four pages of the estimate's key findings.
In a letter to Hoekstra dated Sept. 29, committee member Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., said a committee staff member — identified by FOX sources as Hanauer — requested the document from National Intelligence Director John Negroponte three days before the Times story appeared.
"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."
In an interview Friday with FOX News, LaHood suggested that Harman's actions were politically motivated, and said that his request for the investigation into the matter wasn't just a fact-finding mission.
"We're in the political season, and if the ranking member on our committee wants to play politics, there are some of us on the other side that can equally play politics and I'm not afraid to do it," LaHood said.
In a letter dated Tuesday, Hoekstra acknowledged LaHood's request for the investigation, and then took aim at Harman and committee Democrats.
"It has become clear to me, by your continuing and unauthorized releases of information received and maintained by the Committee, that Democrats are not willing to protect committee information, and that you are politicizing intelligence for purposes not reflecting national security values," Hoekstra wrote.
On Tuesday, Harman unilaterally released the executive summary of an independent investigator's review into the actions of jailed former congressman 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."
In response to Hoekstra's letter about the National Intelligence Estimate investigation, Harman wrote on Wednesday that she was "appalled" by his action, which was "without basis," and demanded that Hoekstra "immediately reinstate the staffer's access to classified information."
She also wrote: "[Y]ou admit that your action against this staffer is in retaliation for my decision to release an unclassified summary of the Special Counsel's report into the Cunningham matter. If you have a problem with me, why not deal with me directly?"
That same day, a conference call to the committee's nine Democrats 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.
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 across government 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.
In a response to Harman's letter, dated Friday, Hoekstra said that the suspension wasn't necessarily "a determination that wrongdoing has actually occurred," and asked for Harman's cooperation.
In a statement released Friday, House Speaker Dennis Hastert lent support to his fellow Republicans, saying he believed the suspension was a "very prudent step," and, "I believe that Chairman Hoekstra has taken the right steps to properly investigate this matter to protect the integrity of classified information to protect American national security."
FOX News' Jim Mills and Brian Wilson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.