Even as the White House hotly contests any suggestion that a flurry of recent intelligence leaks were political in nature, there’s no doubt that the top topic on the Hill this week could be a political quicksand for the administration in the coming campaign season.
The leaks range from Obama’s “kill list” for drone attacks to details of how the U.S. is using cyber-weapons to target Iran’s uranium enrichment activities. And FBI Director Robert Mueller told the House Judiciary Committee last month that his agency is already investigating leaks that compromised an intelligence operation targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and another underwear bomb plot.
The CIA has also come under fire for reportedly sharing details of the raid to kill Osama bin Laden with filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow.
The chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence panels — Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) — issued a joint statement Wednesday conveying their concern over the recent weeks of leaks about intelligence programs and activities, including specific details of sources and methods.
“The accelerating pace of such disclosures, the sensitivity of the matters in question, and the harm caused to our national security interests is alarming and unacceptable,” the lawmakers said, promising to press the executive branch on the leaks and quickly introduce bipartisan legislation dealing with procedures and punishment in regard to sensitive information.
“The problem of leaks of classified information is not new, and efforts in the past to address it have not worked,” they said. ”We believe that significant changes are needed, in legislation, in the culture of the agencies that deal with classified information, in punishing leaks, and in the level of leadership across the government to make clear that these types of disclosures will not stand.”
Feinstein was asked at a press conference with her compatriots the next day about whether “making such a big deal out of leaks in the Obama administration” would be political finger-pointing at the White House.
“This is not finger-pointing at anybody,” Feinstein said. “This has to stop. When people say they don’t want to work with the United States because they can’t trust us to keep a secret, that’s serious. When allies become concerned, when an asset’s life is in jeopardy or the asset’s family’s life is in jeopardy, that’s a problem.”
The question over whether an investigation would be politically damaging quickly evolved into a question of whether the leaks themselves were politically motivated, thanks to Obama’s opponent in the 2008 election.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said yesterday that disclosure of information on classified intelligence operations has “now been leaked by the administration at the highest levels at the White House and that’s not acceptable,” adding that the administration was likely doing so in an effort to boost President Obama’s foreign policy credentials.
In a Fox News poll conducted June 3-5, President Obama leads Mitt Romney by 13 points on whom voters trust better to handle fighting terrorism and by 9 points on foreign policy.
Obama, at a hastily called press conference on the economy today, answered a question on the leaks by saying that it’s “offensive” to suggest that the White House was involved in politically motivated leaks.
“The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive. It’s wrong,” he said. “And people I think need to have a better sense of how I approach this office and how the people around me here approach this office.”
“Any suggestion that the White House has leaked sensitive information for political purposes has no basis in fact and has been denied by the authors themselves,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said, referring to New York Times reporters.
Responding to Obama, McCain said today that even the journalists refer to their sources as “administration officials” or “aides” to the president, even “members of the president’s national security team who were in the [White House Situation Room]” during key discussions and an official “who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.”
“What the president did not unequivocally say today is that none of the classified or highly sensitive information recently leaked to the media came from the White House,” McCain said.
The administration faces the decision of whether it will bow to growing demands on the Hill for a truly independent investigation, calls that are likely to escalate in the coming week.