Two Republican congressional leaders have asked the FBI to examine whether White House officials may have inadvertently fueled news leaks which disrupted a Western intelligence operation targeting Al Qaeda's Yemen-based affiliate.
On Monday, Rep Peter King, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, requested that an FBI investigation of alleged leaks cover the White House, including the National Security staff, according to a letter which King sent to FBI director Robert Mueller.
Later on Monday, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, faxed a similar but more specific request to Mueller.
A representative of Chambliss' office said that the letter referred to a Reuters story from last week, which disclosed that a briefing by a senior White House official may have inadvertently tipped the media to sensitive information about an undercover informant who played a central role in the case.
The briefing by John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, came after the Associated Press wrote the first story about the plot by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to plant an underwear bomber on a U.S. flight.
During the call, Brennan said that the bomb scheme was never a real threat because the U.S. had "inside control" over the plot. Within hours, a former official who was on the call speculated on television that the U.S. "had somebody on the inside" of the plot.
By the next day, news outlets reported that the U.S. had planted a spy inside the AQAP. The informant had acquired the latest, non-metallic model of the underwear bomb and handed it over to U.S. authorities.
It later emerged that Britain's domestic and foreign intelligence services, known as MI-5 and MI-6, played a central role in the operation and that Saudi Intelligence also was involved. Counter-terrorism officials said that the existence of the undercover informant was the operation's most critical secret.
Because of leaks, U.S. and allied officials said they were forced to prematurely end the operation.
In a classified letter to the FBI chief last week, a bi-partisan group of Senate Intelligence Committee members called on Mueller to investigate the leaks, though the letter did not mention the White House.
In an appearance last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mueller promised the bureau would "investigate thoroughly." An FBI spokesman declined to elaborate further.
Last week, the White House strongly denied that Brennan had leaked classified information related to the undercover operation. "No one is more upset than us about this disclosure, and we support efforts to prevent leaks like this which harm our national security," the White House said in a statement.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on the Congressional requests to the FBI.
(Reporting By Mark Hosenball; editing by Marilyn W. Thompson)