By Jeremy Herb and Amie Parnes - 06/09/12 10:57 AM EDT
The brewing controversy over leaked national security information is becoming an increasing problem for President Obama in his bitter reelection battle with Mitt Romney.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced late Friday that a team of U.S. attorneys has been assigned to investigate the disclosure of classified information and prosecute any criminal violations they discover.
Democrats have also criticized the leaks, revealed in stories about a U.S. cyber-attack against Iran, a “kill list,” and an infiltration of al Qaeda in Yemen, as part of a dangerous pattern that must be addressed now.
Administration officials acknowledge that there is some anxiety at the White House about the controversy, which President Obama addressed personally for the first time Friday at a press conference.
“There’s no denying it’s a significant problem and it has to be addressed,” said one former senior administration official.
Obama, on Friday, called accusations that information was disclosed for political gain “offensive” and “wrong.”
The controversy is creating an unwanted distraction at a time when the administration is trying to push economic policies.
The former official and other top Democrats predicted Republicans would attempt to turn the issue into a Solyndra-type distraction, something Obama can’t afford as he tries to convince voters he deserved another four years despite a sluggish economy that saw unemployment inch up to 8.2 percent last month.
And the leak issue, unlike Solyndra, appears to have some staying power. It dominated the headlines and the cable news networks on Friday and seemed to have juice heading into the weekend and beyond, drawing comparisons to the criticism leveled at the Bush administration for revealing the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame.
“This is 100 times the magnitude of that,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) on CNN Friday, comparing the Obama leaks to Plame.
On Tuesday, McCain called for a special counsel to investigate the Obama administration, and he said he's drafting a Senate resolution to call for the special counsel after the White House rejected the idea.
McCain has repeatedly accused the White House of leaking information to make the president look good in his reelection campaign, despite Obama’s “offensive” rebuke and White House press secretary Jay Carney calling his charges “grossly irresponsible.”
“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 in a statement after Obama’s press conference Friday, where he cited articles in the New York Times that used “administration officials.”
“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,” McCain said.
The former senior administration official said it was illogical to think Obama officials leaked the classified information for political gain, saying "there's too much of a political risk and a legal risk there."
“The idea this occurred for a political reason is absurd,” the former official said. “It's 100 percent crazy.
"This is a guy who didn't tell the first lady about the bin Laden raid," the former official said of Obama. "I simply can't comprehend that that’s the strategy. You don't need any of that to shore up the president’s foreign policy credentials. The record is already good."
So far, Romney has not brought the leaks into the campaign, as he’s opted not to criticize the president over the leaks or join in GOP calls for a special counsel.
“Governor Romney thinks it’s vital that covert operations remain covert,” said Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg. “He believes leaks risk our national security and must stop. Leadership starts at the top. It’s his sincere hope that the president is using all means at his disposal to put an end to this harmful practice.”
Democrats have rejected the Republican accusations of political leaks, but they’ve still expressed their anger that the information was disclosed, promising hearings and new legislation.
“I’ve been on the Intelligence Committee for 11 years and I have never seen it worse, I can tell you that,” Dianne Feinstein told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
Feinstein has not weighed in on McCain’s call for a special counsel, saying she needed more time to evaluate the issue.
“A special prosecutor could take years,” Feinstein said Thursday. “We don’t have years.”
While the former senior administration official said the leaks would be the subject of much scrutiny in the coming weeks, it seemed unlikely that it would resonate all the way to November, the official said.
“I can't imagine this is what we're going to be talking about in 3 months,” the former official said.