Anger grows in Congress over border agents' case
Some in House dismiss Homeland official's apology, say punish staff for misstatements

By MICHELLE MITTELSTADT
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON Republican congressmen's outrage over the imprisonment of two Border Patrol agents from Texas intensified Wednesday as the top Homeland Security investigative official apologized for his aides' misleading statements to lawmakers about the case.

The agents, sent to federal prison for wounding a fleeing Mexican drug trafficker and hiding evidence, never told investigators that they went on patrol intending to "shoot a Mexican," admitted Richard Skinner, the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general, under questioning during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing.

The misstatements occurred when aides briefed four Texas congressmen in September about the 2005 shooting near Fabens, southeast of El Paso.

"It was an unfortunate mischaracterization," Skinner told Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, whose district stretches to Harris County. "I apologize on behalf of our staff, and I just want to make perfectly clear this was not intentional."

But McCaul and several other House members from the Houston area who are involved in the Border Patrol agents' case said the misstatements never would have come to light had they not forced Skinner's office to release an investigative report on the shooting.

The report, released Wednesday with some sections deleted, does not substantiate what McCaul said were some of the more inflammatory claims made by the inspector general's office last fall. The claims included the alleged "shoot a Mexican" comment and an assertion that agents Jose Compean and Ignacio Ramos had no fear for their lives when they fired 15 rounds at the trafficker as he ran back toward Mexico after ditching a van with 743 pounds of marijuana.

"Those representations became misrepresentations if not downright false statements to members of Congress," McCaul said, later suggesting that Skinner should consider disciplining or firing the staffers.

In an interview, Skinner questioned the push to punish his office for "an innocent, unintended characterization."

Calls for pardon increase
Other Republicans on Capitol Hill went further than McCaul in what has mushroomed into a growing political liability for President Bush and his administration a vulnerability all the greater because some of the president's staunchest conservative allies have turned against him on this issue.

Reps. John Culberson of Houston and Sam Johnson of Plano said Skinner and his top aides should be forced to resign.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., demanded that the Bureau of Prisons chief, Harley Lappin, be fired after Saturday's beating of Ramos by six inmates at a Mississippi prison.

The prisoners recognized Ramos and assaulted him after a TV segment about his case aired on America's Most Wanted, lawmakers said.

'Impeachment talk'
Bush faces increasing demands from House Republicans and others that he pardon Ramos and Compean, who were sentenced in October to 11 and 12 years, respectively, after being convicted of violating the trafficker's civil rights and tampering with evidence for picking up their shell casings and not reporting the shooting.

"The president has lost my respect because he will not step forward and do what's right," said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., went a step further, saying Bush would face dire consequences if Compean or Ramos is killed while in prison. If that happens, he said, "There's going to be some kind of impeachment talk on Capitol Hill."

Last month, Bush said in response to passions about the case and the pardon request that he would take a hard look at the case.

Prison protections sought
Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said Ramos sustained minor bruises and abrasions and has since been removed from the general prison population at the Yazoo City prison. Compean, incarcerated in Ohio, has never been in the general population.

Hunter and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, wrote President Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, respectively, on Wednesday, demanding protections in prison for the ex-agents.

Bipartisan request
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., granted a request Wednesday by Cornyn and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., for a committee investigation and hearing into the case. McCaul is asking the House Homeland Security Committee to conduct a hearing as well.

And Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, demanded a Justice Department investigation into the faulty statements made to lawmakers by the inspector general's staff last fall.

"It was a fabrication," Poe said flatly of the investigators' claims. Poe wouldn't hazard a guess as to why the investigators misspoke. But Culberson offered an opinion.

"There is no chance this was an innocent mistake," Culberson said. "Those statements made to us were designed to throw us off the scent and cover up what is obviously an unjust criminal prosecution of two officers who were protecting our borders from criminals and terrorists sneaking in."

Punishment criticized
Compean and Ramos have become a popular cause among immigration-enforcement proponents in and out of Congress, hailed as heroes wrongly prosecuted by the government. Federal prosecutors, for their part, claim they were rogue agents who fired on an unarmed man who posed no danger to them, destroyed evidence, and lied to superiors and investigators.

Even if the agents were guilty, their defenders suggest the punishment has far outweighed the wrongdoing.

"At worst, these two agents should have been suspended or fired from their jobs for failing to properly report the shooting and picking up the shell casings," Culberson said.

michelle.mittelstadt@chron.com


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