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Government wants wildlife group to identify leaker

A GOP senator asked for the probe into who disclosed Bush's plan to weaken the species act.

WASHINGTON - The inspector general for the Commerce Department is trying to force a prominent environmental group to disclose who leaked the Bush administration's plans to weaken the Endangered Species Act just weeks before President Obama took office.

The investigation was triggered by Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, senior Republican on the Committee on Environment and Public Works. The case suggests that, under at least certain circumstances, the government will continue to pursue and identify federal employees who disclose sensitive documents about controversial U.S. policies - a common practice under the Bush administration.

The Obama administration last week put the disputed environmental plans on hold. Obama had previously said he opposed the Bush move, which limited scientific reviews of projects that might harm endangered wildlife and plants.

But that did not stop Commerce's inspector general, Todd Zinser, who in a highly unusual move sent an administrative subpoena to the National Wildlife Federation. It demanded documents that would identify who leaked the draft environmental rules, which were not marked sensitive, secret, or otherwise confidential or classified.

Inspectors general operate independently from the White House, though a president can remove them after notifying Congress. President George W. Bush appointed Zinser in December 2007.

Zinser did not notify the White House about the subpoena, Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said yesterday.

Commerce's assistant inspector general for investigations, Scott Berenberg, said the case focused on the government's ability to deliberate policies privately.

"When employees are entrusted with sensitive information," Berenberg said, "we have to ensure that it is handled accordingly and that they follow the rules."

The head of the National Whistleblowers Center, lawyer Steven M. Kohn, said he feared that the investigation would have a chilling effect on any federal employee who disclosed information.

The government will face an uphill legal battle, he said, because the environmental group has a strong argument that the probe is an abuse of the right of association under the First Amendment.

Inhofe said in a statement that he asked for the investigation. "It's simply the right thing to do," he said.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he was unaware of the leaks inquiry. He said he was a strong proponent of greater openness during the rule-making process as "the best way to deal with" the public.