West Wing Conspiracy?

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WASHINGTON: Never mind that the evidence is flimsy or even nonexistent. That didn't stop Republicans from charging last week that the White House was engaged in a "scorched earth strategy" -- trying to embarrass and intimidate political enemies by dredging up ancient sex scandals and leaking them to the press. After Dan Burton and Henry Hyde each got slimed at extraordinarily opportune times, who could blame them? The webzine Salon denies that their story about Hyde's 30-year-old extramarital affair came from the White House, but the bomb threat against their San Francisco offices Friday suggests that not everybody is convinced. Majority Whip Tom DeLay has already asked the FBI to investigate whether Salon's scoop can be traced to the West Wing. Intimidation, he suggests, might be added to the list of impeachment charges.

The FBI has promised, somewhat half-heartedly, to take "appropriate steps." (White House Aide Sidney Blumenthal, who has been known to retail mud to Clinton-friendly reporters, can probably expect a cursory visit from the G-men.) But the outrage on both sides of the House is genuine. "This is a way to push back against the Hyde story, which infuriates all of the leadership," says TIME congressional correspondent John Dickerson. Republicans, however, could profit from the example of Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, who when faced with a sex scandal of his own -- gay-themed, no less -- just took his beating and moved on. "You think I'm worried?" Frank quipped last week. "I already gave at the office."