Republican senators write Holder demanding special counsel for leaks

Republican senators are unimpressed with new steps the Obama administration is taking to crack down on leakers, renewing their call for a special counsel to investigate a series of national-security disclosures. 

A group of 31 senators sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday calling once again for an independent investigation conducted by a special counsel, and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) said they are considering a congressional investigation as well. 

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McCain, who has been President Obama’s most vocal critic on the recent series of national-security leaks, said he applauded the new measures announced Monday by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, but that they didn’t do enough to fix the problem.

Clapper announced Monday that the intelligence community would add a question to all its polygraph tests specifically about disclosures to the media, and he instructed his inspector general to investigate leaks that the Justice Department does not.

The renewed push for a special counsel, which occurred just one day after Clapper’s new measures were announced, shows the Republican senators are actively trying to keep the issue from fading despite getting overshadowed by issues like jobs and healthcare.

“I can assure you I’m not going to let this go. What we do today sets a precedent for tomorrow,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who spearheaded the letter to Holder. “I cannot believe this is good policy, to allow an administration to basically investigate itself.”

The letter sent to Holder follows a non-binding Senate resolution McCain introduced earlier this month that also calls for a special counsel. It has 29 Republican co-sponsors.

Republicans have alleged that the investigation being run by two U.S. attorneys cannot be independent if they are reporting to Holder, who faces a contempt vote this week in the House over the “Fast and Furious” operation.

McCain told reporters Tuesday that, like House Republicans, he “did not trust” Holder. 

Republicans have also charged Democrats, including Obama and Vice President Biden, with having a double standard for supporting independent investigations of the Valerie Plame identity leak case and the Jack Abramoff scandal under the George W. Bush administration, but not the current leaks.

Democrats have responded that the GOP is playing politics by demanding a special counsel before the two U.S. attorneys have a chance to complete their investigation.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) outrage over the leaks was repeatedly cited in the Republicans’ press conference, but she told reporters later Tuesday that she opposes a special counsel and was concerned about the partisan tone the leaks investigation had taken. 

“Let’s see how this goes,” Feinstein told reporters, referring to the DOJ investigation. “They’re three weeks into it now. Let’s see what it produces.”

Feinstein said that the two prosecutors, U.S. Attorneys Ron Machen and Rod Rosenstein, had already interviewed more than 100 people, while a special counsel would still be getting the office established in the same timeframe.

The calls for addressing leaks in the intelligence community came from both parties over revelations several weeks ago, sparked by The New York Times’s David Sanger reporting that the United States had launched a cyberattack against Iran. Lawmakers said that was the most egregious in a disturbing series of major classified breaches, including reports on a double agent infiltrating al Qaeda in Yemen and a terrorist “kill list.”

In the letter sent to Holder on Tuesday, the GOP lawmakers singled out National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon as a likely source of leaks, pointing to his portrayal in Sanger’s book, Confront and Conceal.

“Mr. Sanger clearly has enjoyed great access to senior White House officials, most notably to Thomas Donilon, the national security adviser,” the lawmakers say in their letter to Holder. “Mr. Donilon, in effect, is the hero of the book, as well as the commenter of record on events.”

McCain was more hesitant about pinpointing Donilon.

“I’m not ready to indict someone until an investigation is completed,” he said at the press conference.

McCain and the White House have battled over the motivations behind the leaks, with Obama’s 2008 presidential opponent accusing the administration of allowing them in an effort to boost Obama’s image for his reelection campaign.

Obama called McCain’s accusations “offensive” earlier this month at a press conference, saying the White House takes all leaks seriously.

But McCain remained unsatisfied with the new measures taken this week by Clapper and the Obama administration to try to stanch such leaks.

“All he’s saying is that people will have additional polygraphs — we’ve got to find out how this all happened; that’s to some degree closing the barn door,” McCain said. “So I think it’s laudable that he has taken that step, but the fact is we need to find out how this happened and who did it.”

McCain raised the prospect of a congressional investigation, something that could be done under the Intelligence or Homeland Security committees. 

He suggested it might only happen if Republicans win the Senate in November.

“This may rise to the level of a congressional investigation, and obviously that may have something to do with who’s in the majority in Congress,” McCain said.

McCain does have an ally in Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who caucuses with Democrats but frequently aligns with McCain on national-security issues. Lieberman said Tuesday that he supported establishing a special counsel to investigate the leaks, though he’s not a co-sponsor of the special-counsel resolution.

Feinstein, who is planning to author new legislation to crack down on leakers, said that she was open to congressional investigations, but thought it was best to let the DOJ investigation run its course first.

“I think having the professionals do the investigation is important, then we can take what they do and hold hearings on it,” Feinstein said.

Alexander Bolton contributed.