The top Republican in the Congress on Thursday criticized Representative Michele Bachmann and four other fellow House Republicans for making "pretty dangerous" accusations when they questioned the security clearance of a Muslim aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The comments of House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner came after Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, blasted the five lawmakers for seeking an investigation into whether Huma Abedin, Clinton's deputy chief of staff, had connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political organization.
Boehner, speaking at a regular news briefing, said "accusations like this being thrown around are pretty dangerous." He said he did not know Abedin, but "from everything I know of her, she has a sterling character."
McCain took to the Senate floor on Wednesday to accuse the lawmakers of making a "sinister" attack on Abedin. Following the custom in Congress, he did not name them but left no doubt he was talking about Bachmann, as well as Representatives Louie Gohmert, Trent Franks, Thomas Rooney and Lynn Westmoreland.
They sent a letter in June to the State Department's inspector general suggesting members of Abedin's family may have connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the writers said may be seeking access to high levels of the U.S. government.
Most attention has focused on Bachmann, who earlier this year failed in her bid for the Republican presidential nomination. She has long been criticized by fellow Republicans, among others, for controversial comments and factual errors.
Bachmann defended her actions Thursday on the talk show of conservative host Glenn Beck. "If my family members were associated with Hamas, a terrorist organization, that alone could be sufficient to disqualify me from getting a security clearance," Bachmann said, according to a transcript of her remarks. "So all we did is ask, did the federal government look into her family associations before she got a high level security clearance."
There is no evidence connecting Abedin or her family to any terrorist organization, McCain stressed in his Senate speech.
"Rarely do I come to the floor of this institution to discuss particular individuals," McCain said. "But I understand how painful and injurious it is when a person's character, reputation, and patriotism are attacked without concern for fact or fairness."
He called Abedin "an intelligent, upstanding, hard-working, and loyal servant of our country and our government, who has devoted countless days of her life to advancing the ideals of the nation she loves and looking after its most precious interests."
A State Department spokesman said Clinton "very much values" Abedin's "wise counsel and support" and called the allegations preposterous.
McCain was supported on Wednesday by Edward Rollins, a prominent Republican strategist who worked on Bachmann's primary campaign.
On the Fox News website, Rollins wrote that he was "fully aware that she sometimes has difficulty with her facts," but said "this is downright vicious and reaches the late Senator Joe McCarthy level," a reference to the U.S. senator from Wisconsin who rose and then fell accusing government officials and others of being communists in the 1950s.
"....Shame on you, Michele!" Rollins wrote, adding that she should apologize to Abedin, Clinton and "to the millions of hard working, loyal, Muslim Americans for your wild and unsubstantiated charges."
The lawmakers' June 13 letter, which they released publicly, asserted that the State Department had recently taken action "enormously favorable" to the Muslim Brotherhood and that its interests could pose a security risk for the United States.
The letter cited a security study by an outside group alleging that three members' of Abedin's family, including her father who died two decades ago, and her mother and brother were linked to operatives or organizations of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Abedin is married to former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner of New York, a Jew.
(Additional reporting by John Crawley; Editing by Fred Barbash and Vicki Allen)