By Julie Ershadi and Julian Pecquet - 07/29/12 10:10 AM EDT
Republican lawmakers who demanded an investigation into whether Hillary Clinton's deputy chief of staff is a covert agent for the Muslim Brotherhood said this week they have no regrets.
Former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and four other House members sent several letters over the past few weeks to government agencies asking them to make sure they were properly vetting federal workers.
Their letter to the State Department's deputy inspector general, however, ignited controversy for singling out Huma Abedin, a longtime Clinton aide and former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-N.Y.) wife, who they said had family ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The focus in the media has been on one sentence in one of those letters, and ... they have the right to do that,” Franks said. “But it certainly doesn't serve the American people when they overlook the central focus of the letters to try to take out of context one element of it that seems to be the only thing the left can aim at.”
Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) made the same point in an emailed statement to The Hill.
“As a member of the House Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, my top priority is ensuring the security of our nation,” Rooney said. “The tragic events at Fort Hood in 2009 [when 12 service members and a civilian were killed by a Palestinian-American with ties to radical Islam] proved that our enemies will go to great lengths, including infiltrating and recruiting members of our military, to commit acts of terror against American citizens. I regret that Mrs. Abedin has become the media focus of this story, because the intention of the letters was to bring greater attention to a legitimate national security risk.”
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), when asked if he would consider apologizing, unequivocally said, “No.”
“I think the letter speaks for itself,” he told The Hill. “We didn’t accuse anybody or anything else.”
The debate has erupted as the United States is forced to reassess its relationship with long-time allies in the Middle East, especially Egypt where Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi won the presidency last month. The brotherhood, the Arab world's most influential Islamist movement, officially condemns violence but believes that Islam should be the guiding principle behind government.
The other two letter signers have also doubled down.
"I hope and pray that the mainstream media will get past the enjoyment of vilifying and trying to destroy the messenger and look at the message," Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said on the House floor on Thursday.
Bachmann has not only stood by the letter but told conservative talk show host Glenn Beck on Thursday that Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to Congress, has a “long record of being associated with ... the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Ellison has denied the allegation, saying Bachmann just “wanted attention.”
Some Republicans have ripped the effort by the handful of House legislators, most notably Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a friend of Abedin's, who called them “ugly” and “sinister.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the accusations were “dangerous.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launched an online petition on Friday demanding Bachmann and her colleagues retract the letter. And the pro-Obama People for the American Way has a sign-on letter to Boehner asking him to remove Bachmann, Rooney and Westmoreland from the House Intelligence Committee, whose chairman has rejected the allegations.
"That kind of assertion certainly doesn't comport with the Intelligence Committee, and I can say that on the record," Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) told USA Today. "I have no information in my committee that would indicate that Huma is anything other than an American patriot."
Others have refrained from criticizing Bachmann and the other members.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told CBS on Friday that Bachmann's “concern was about the security of the country” when asked if the letter was “out of line.”
Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said he was “mystified” by the criticism.
“What is wrong with raising the question? Why isn’t even asking whether we’re living up to our standards a legitimate level of congressional oversight?” Bolton asked on the Frank Gaffney radio show. “Why has that generated so much criticism? I’m just mystified by it.”
Westmoreland told The Hill there's been some blowback in his district, though nothing out of the ordinary.
“We haven’t really gotten that much reaction from our district,” he said. “First of all, you don’t know where the calls come from. But I mean, really, not any different from any other issue — whether you’re voting on horse slaughter or right to life, you’re going to get a certain number of phone calls…”
Franks said the criticism from some in the GOP is nothing out of the ordinary.
“I think that that is a routine reality,” he said. “There are always going to be differences even within the party. In this case, I'm finding that the more people actually read the letters, the more support we can be coming to see.”
Asked to elaborate, he told The Hill that “we've seen a lot of shift here recently, and that's just the simple truth.”
Still, he acknowledged, the situation could have been handled a little better.
“There are things that I would certainly do differently if I had it to do over again,” Franks said. “There were certainly no accusations in the letter and there were no inaccuracies in the letter. That said, you can tell the truth in ways that are awkward — in which there are better ways to say it.
“There was never an attempt on my part to cast any negative aspersions toward an individual,” he said. “It was all aimed at the Muslim Brotherhood, which I am convinced remains a major national security concern for this country.”