White House Faces Mounting Chatter Over Intelligence Leaks

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.

The White House has already signaled it wouldn’t accept such a move lightly, and has strategic reasons not to do so. If the administration begins with its own probe, it can successfully draw out any investigation by several months — and potentially clear November — by saying it will review its own investigation, then turn over internal results to the intelligence committees for review, at which time lawmakers can decide if they feel it’s necessary to move forward with an independent investigation.

“I don’t believe that Attorney General [Eric] Holder or his deputy are going to be able to do a truly independent investigation,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “I don’t think we can just let the White House investigate itself or take its word for it that it’s not the source of these leaks.”

On Thursday, Carney panned the idea of an independent counsel to probe the leaks. “Again, this is something that the president insists that his administration take all appropriate and necessary steps to prevent leaks of classified information or sensitive information that could risk our counterterrorism operations,” he said.

Seemingly sensing the pressure, the Justice Department announced late Friday that U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Ronald C. Machen Jr. and U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein had been appointed by Holder to investigate “recent instances of possible unauthorized disclosures of classified information.”

They will be directing separate investigations currently being conducted by the FBI, Holder said.

“In carrying out their assignments, U.S. Attorneys Machen and Rosenstein are fully authorized to prosecute criminal violations discovered as a result of their investigations and matters related to those violations, consult with members of the Intelligence Community and follow all appropriate investigative leads within the executive and legislative branches of government,” Holder said in a statement.

It remains to be seen whether this will satisfy lawmakers who want to ensure that any departments potentially tainted by the scandal steer clear of the investigation, and those who feel that a special probe could waste valuable time.

“I hope the Justice Department will bring the full force of the law against these criminals,” House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said in a guarded statement after Holder’s announcement. “We need to send a clear message to anyone who considers leaking sensitive information and putting Americans at risk: if you leak classified information, you will face jail time.”

Feinstein said her issue with a special investigator is that it “can take years.”

“We don’t have years. We need to legislate,” she said. “We need to get some solutions before us very quickly. …Wherever the chips fall, they fall, but we want a fair investigation.”

Ruppersberger said outright, pre-investigation, that he doesn’t believe that this was politically motivated. “The issue is about whether or not this was used politically,” he said.

“We got the information. We looked at the leaks. That’s what we’re going to look at now and investigate,” the Maryland Democrat said. “We have to make a determination. There are a lot of reasons why things occur, but you can’t make predeterminations when you’re evaluating and looking into changing the process and also how do these leaks occur.”

McCain, however, was quickly drafting a measure calling for a special council to probe the leaks.

“There are some of us who will be seeking a resolution, sense of the Senate, calling for the appointment of a special counsel,” McCain told Sean Hannity last night. “I hope maybe as early as Monday.”

“I continue to call on the president to immediately appoint a special counsel to fully investigate, and where necessary, prosecute these gravely serious breaches of our national security,” the senator said after Obama’s press conference today.

Rogers said the fact that the CIA won’t provide details of the leaks to Congress, citing the ongoing investigation by the FBI, is proof alone that an independent probe is needed.

“What we are doing in a bipartisan way is we need to follow the leads of the investigation to the leaker and make sure that leaker goes to jail. Much like what happened with the Valerie Plame case,” Rogers said this morning on CNN. “Someone went to jail over that. This is 100 times the magnitude of that.”

UPDATE: “The investigation must be complete, fair and balanced,” Rogers said in response to Holder’s move. “These US attorneys will need to have the ability to follow the investigation wherever it may lead. I look forward to hearing how they will be independent from the chain of command.”