White House rejects calls for special counsel for national security leaks

The White House on Thursday rejected congressional calls for a special counsel to investigate a spate of recent national-security leaks described as among the worst lawmakers have ever seen. 

Members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees have been particularly angered, prompting a rare show of bipartisan fire against the administration. 

“Leaks jeopardize American lives,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Thursday. 

“I’ve been on the Intelligence Committee for 11 years and I have never seen it worse, I can tell you that,” Feinstein told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Wednesday in a separate interview.

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Outrage has snowballed since Friday’s The New York Times story detailing the “Stuxnet” cyberattack against Iran, in which U.S. officials were cited as sources. Other leaks have led to stories about a terrorism “kill list” and a double agent in Yemen. 

All three classified disclosures threaten national security, put U.S. interests at risk and reveal a disturbing trend in the intelligence community, according to lawmakers.

White House press secretary Jay Carney on Thursday said the president would not agree to appoint an independent counsel. 

But Carney said the president took the issue of the leaks “very seriously.”

“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,” Carney told reporters on Air Force One, according to a transcript. 

The administration sought to calm matters by sending Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI Director Robert Mueller to Capitol Hill on Thursday for separate meetings with the heads of the House and Senate Intelligence committees. 

But after the meeting with Clapper, the four Intelligence heads — Feinstein, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) — held a joint press conference wherein they vowed to write new laws to stop the springing of intelligence leaks.

While both Democrats and Republicans have criticized the leaks, Republican lawmakers have pushed harder against the Obama administration, with many lawmakers calling for a special prosecutor to investigate and a small group led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) accusing the administration of leaking to boost President Obama’s image in an election year.

McCain told reporters Thursday that the latest series of leaks were the worst he’d witnessed, because of both the level of classification of the programs involved and that “you could, as I have, drawn conclusions that this kind of portrayal is bound to be enhancing to the president’s image in an election year.”

Carney called McCain’s charges “grossly irresponsible” and insisted “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.”

Rogers offered support for a special counsel, saying Thursday it was possible that the “sources of these leaks could be in position to influence these investigations.” 

 “You’re going to have to have at least some sort of outside look because of the nature [of the leaks],” Rogers said.

But Feinstein, after meeting with Clapper, said she was not sure yet whether there should be a special counsel appointed.

“A special prosecutor could take years,” Feinstein said. “We don’t have years.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a frequent ally of McCain’s, said he believed “completely” that the leaks came from the White House.

“Blow-by-blow description of what happens in the situation room — unless they’ve opened up the situation room discussions to tour groups through the White House, you would assume that people in that room are pretty high up,” Graham said on Fox News Radio’s “Kilmeade and Friends.”

“You got three stories in about 45 days that paint a narrative of the president being strong on national security, disrupting al Qaeda bomber plots, cyberattacks against Iran that were a year or two ago,” Graham said. “Why are they coming out now, five months before the election?”

Not all Republicans are calling for a special counsel, however. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he was concerned about the leaks but did not directly answer a question about supporting McCain.

“I think the administration should heed the advice of former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who when after the [Osama] bin Laden raid a lot of details were coming out, he promptly went over to the White House and used some colorful language to try to prevent any more leaks from occurring,” Boehner said. The reference is to an anecdote in the newly released book from the Times reporter who broke the Iran cyber story, David Sanger, in which Gates said to “shut the [expletive] up” about the bin Laden details. 

McCain and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) have promised hearings on the leaks, and both attended Thursday’s briefing with Clapper. McCain told The Hill it was a “good briefing,” without going into details.

While congressional Democrats have expressed outrage at the leaks, they’ve rejected accusations of political motivations.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday that McCain’s accusations were “a sad statement,” and others, including Feinstein and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), have said there’s no basis to suggest a political dimension to the leaks.

Feinstein said at Thursday’s press conference that her focus was on stopping leaks in the future. While she declined to get into details about legislation the House and Senate committees were planning, she said they are interested in limiting the number of people who receive classified information and possibly giving authorities more power to question journalists. 

— Russell Berman contributed.

— Updated at 8:21 p.m.