White House rejects calls for special counsel for national security leaks

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 FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinMcConnell says Trump nominee to replace Ginsburg will get Senate vote Top Democrats call for DOJ watchdog to probe Barr over possible 2020 election influence Intensifying natural disasters do little to move needle on climate efforts MORE (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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissLobbying world GOP lobbyist tapped for White House legislative affairs The Hill's Morning Report - Gillibrand drops out as number of debaters shrinks MORE (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 McCainJohn Sidney McCainMomentum growing among Republicans for Supreme Court vote before Election Day McConnell urges GOP senators to 'keep your powder dry' on Supreme Court vacancy McSally says current Senate should vote on Trump nominee MORE (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 GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamMomentum growing among Republicans for Supreme Court vote before Election Day Video of Lindsey Graham arguing against nominating a Supreme Court justice in an election year goes viral Warning signs flash for Lindsey Graham in South Carolina MORE (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 BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLongtime House parliamentarian to step down Five things we learned from this year's primaries Bad blood between Pelosi, Meadows complicates coronavirus talks MORE (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,” BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLongtime House parliamentarian to step down Five things we learned from this year's primaries Bad blood between Pelosi, Meadows complicates coronavirus talks MORE 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 LevinCarl Milton LevinMichigan to pay 0M to victims of Flint water crisis Unintended consequences of killing the filibuster Inspector general independence must be a bipartisan priority in 2020 MORE (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 KerryJohn Forbes KerryThe Memo: Warning signs flash for Trump on debates Divided country, divided church TV ads favored Biden 2-1 in past month MORE (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.