White House leaks draw ire of lawmakers' group

Jun 7, 2012 Issues: Counterterrorism

Politico -- by Reid J. Epstein

Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill don’t agree on much these days, but they agree that the White House has a serious problem with leaking classified information.

And with national security in the balance, a group of congressional leaders say there’s an urgent need to get things back in line.

“A special prosecutor can take years. We don’t have years. We need to legislate and we need to do things quickly,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) Thursday at a press conference of chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees.

The four legislators — Feinstein, Sen. Saxby Chambless (R-Ga.) and Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Mich) and Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) — said they met Thursday morning with James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and will receive a briefing from FBI Director Robert Mueller later in the day.

But after a glut of stories about secret U.S. operations overseas – from an Associated Press reports of foiled Yemeni bomb plots to drone strikes in Pakistan to last week’s New York Times story confirming long-suspected U.S. involvement in development of the computer virus Stuxnet – they say it’s become clear that there’s a problem that the administration hasn’t been able to address on its own.

Last month’s revelation by Judicial Watch that the White House, the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency allowed filmmakers unusual access to people involved in the planning and execution of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden has also caused concern.

Rogers said the bipartisan presence spoke to the seriousness of the issue. Of the leaks, he said: “It seems to be a pattern that is growing worse and more frequent. … Their inability to keep a secret, this has been as serious a problem as I have seen.”

The chairman also raised the possibility some of the leaks could be coming from the Justice Department of FBI. The Justice Department’s national security division has recused itself from part of the leak investigation, Rogers said.

“It appears the sources of these leaks could be in a position to influence the investigations,” he said.

Even with Feinstein’s call for a legislative response, Rogers still wants a special prosecutor to investigate the matter because, he said, a single investigator could find evidence of wrongdoing “within their chain of command.”

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“I believe this warrants a fair and complete investigation,” he said in an interview Thursday afternoon on CNN. “Someone who would be able to have access to all elements, not just the intelligence community, not just the Department of Defense, but all elements that had access to this information.”

The press conference came hours after Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) took the opportunity of Attorney General Eric Holder’s previously scheduled appearance to testify on the Fast & Furious scandal before the House Judiciary Committee as to accuse his department – which has prosecuted an unprecedented number of prosecutions of alleged leaks of national security matters – of failing vigilance.

“The Department of Justice has not taken the initiative to prosecute leaks of national security secrets,” he said.

The articles, which can be seen as painting President Barack Obama as a strong, decisive leader on national security issues, has Republicans in particular began protesting that the White House is leaking for political gain.

The FBI has already launched its own probe into who provided classified information.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the House Homeland Security Committee chairman who also sits on the Intelligence Committee, on Thursday echoed Sen. John McCain’s Wednesday allegation that the White House is parsing out classified information about supposedly secret activities for political gain.

“It has to be for re-election,” King told POLITICO. “They can deny it all they want. But it would require a suspension of disbelief to believe its not being done for political purposes.”

King cited the AP’s drone story as an egregious breach of national security.

“I think it’s a pattern they have. The fact that [Obama adviser David] Axelrod is sitting in meetings when they are deciding how drone attacks are being carried out,” King said. “What the hell is he doing there?”

McCain refused to back off his charge as he left Thursday’s briefing.

“I absolutely stand by it,” McCain said.

Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee who has repeatedly attacked Obama on his Iran policy, hasn’t addressed the leak issue. His campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday declined to comment on specific intelligence leaks, but added that she “always [has] concerns about any leaks and what they mean to our national security.” However, Pelosi – a former House Intelligence Committee member — criticized McCain for accusing the Obama administration for leaking information in order to boost President Barack Obama’s political standing.

“With all due respect to Senator McCain, for anybody to say that a leak – and I don’t care party, one way or another – that an intelligence leak is politically motivated is really, really a sad statement,” Pelosi told reporters on Thursday.

White House spokesman Jay Carney on Wednesday sought to quash the accusations.

“Any suggestion that this administration has authorized intentional leaks of classified information for political gain is grossly irresponsible,” Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One.

But that argument hasn’t assuaged top Senate Democrats who have shared outrage. Sens. John Kerry and Feinstein expressed dismay over the leaks Wednesday, with Feinstein taking to CNN to denounce the “avalanche of leaks” that she said “puts our nation’s security in jeopardy.”