WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As the FBI opened a probe into alleged leaks about U.S. cyber attacks on Iran, two prominent Republican senators on Tuesday called for a special counsel to investigate what they called a "pattern" of disclosures of classified information by the Obama administration.
The FBI probe, according to a U.S. government official who spoke on condition of anonymity, will investigate who allegedly leaked classified details to the New York Times of a secret U.S.-Israeli cyber warfare program aimed at crippling Iran's nuclear ambitions.
The Times report, which appeared on June 1, said President Barack Obama had ordered "increasingly sophisticated" cyber warfare attacks on computers that operate nuclear enrichment facilities in Iran.
The FBI did not respond to emails requesting comment.
Senators John McCain and Saxby Chambliss, top Republicans on the Armed Services and the Intelligence committees respectively, said the alleged leaks on cyber warfare weakened U.S. security and appeared to have been made to bolster the Democratic president's national security credentials ahead of the November presidential election.
"Leaks should never be tolerated, but leaking for political advantage is especially troubling," Chambliss said, calling for a investigation of "this pattern of recent leaks."
Prominent Senate Democrats echoed concerns about the spate of leaks, but did not join the call for a special counsel to investigate and said they saw no electoral motives behind the disclosures.
"This is like an avalanche of leaks. It's very detrimental. And candidly, I found it very concerning," said Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry said the leaks about drone attacks and other operations "are frankly all against national security interest. I think they are dangerous, damaging, and whoever is doing that is not acting in the interest of the United States of America."
The White House had no immediate comment.
After the New York Times story last week, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in the administration's view "that information is classified for a reason; that it is kept secret, it is intended not to be publicized because publicizing it would pose a threat to our national security."
On the Senate floor, McCain said recent leaks appeared aimed at depicting Obama as strong on national security.
"Regardless of how politically useful these leaks may have been to the president, they have to stop," McCain said, calling on Obama to appoint a special counsel "to aggressively investigate the leak of any classified information on which the recent stories were based, and where appropriate, to prosecute those responsible."
Talking to reporters, McCain elaborated on his accusation that leaks were aimed at boosting Obama's re-election prospects.
"What else would it be?," McCain said. "There's only one conclusion you can draw ... You'd have to find me an example this egregious by any administration, Republican and Democrat. There's always leaks. But leaks about the highest classified ongoing operations, that could possibly put the whole operation in danger, has reached a new low."
Chambliss also cited recent leaks which counter-terrorism officials say forced an early end to an undercover investigation targeted on Yemen-based militants involved in building underwear bombs designed to foil airport security.