WASHINGTON Attorney General Eric Holder on Friday appointed two chief federal prosecutors to spearhead an investigation into suspected leaks of classified information amid allegations that the White House made the disclosures to boost President Barack Obama's election chances.
Holder said the investigation would be headed by U.S. Attorneys Ronald Machen Jr. of Washington, D.C., and Rod Rosenstein of Maryland, who would be "fully authorized to prosecute criminal violations discovered as a result of their investigation."
"The unauthorized disclosure of classified information can compromise the security of this country and all Americans and it will not be tolerated," Holder said in a statement.
The secrets, revealed in media stories, have included reports on U.S. cyber warfare against Iran, procedures for targeting militants with drones and the existence of a double agent who penetrated a militant group in Yemen.
The issue has spilled into the presidential campaign, with some Republicans charging the leaks appear calculated to boost the Democratic president's re-election prospects.
But Obama brushed off the allegations at a news conference on Friday where he told reporters he was offended by the charges and would not "play" with security issues.
"The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive," he said. "It's wrong and people I think need to have a better sense of how I approach this office."
CONGRESSIONAL, CAMPAIGN FINGER POINTING
U.S. lawmakers from both political parties have been unnerved by the publication of sensitive information and are planning legislation to toughen penalties for leakers.
One lawmaker said there were indications a high-level individual was involved in the media disclosures.
"Someone from a very senior clearance level has provided information, that's very clear in the preliminary review," Representative Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives intelligence committee, told Reuters.
But both Democrats and Republicans welcomed Holder's announcement.
"I am pleased he has picked strong, capable, independent prosecutors for the investigation," Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, said he hoped the Justice Department would bring "the full force of the law" against the leakers.
"We need to send a clear message to anyone who considers leaking sensitive information and putting Americans at risk: if you leak classified information, you will face jail time," he said.
The FBI also has opened investigations into some of the recent reports about sensitive national security matters.
Obama also said on Friday that he would root out those responsible for the revelations because "in some cases it's criminal - these are criminal acts when they release information like this. And we will conduct thorough investigations, as we have in the past.
"Since I've been in office my attitude has been zero tolerance for these kinds of leaks and speculation.
Obama's Justice Department has been criticized by media and civil liberties advocates for prosecuting low-level leakers.
But Senator John McCain, the Republican who lost the presidency to Obama in 2008, has accused the administration of apparently sanctioning leaks by senior administration officials for political purposes.
Democratic Representative C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger said on Friday there could be authorized releases of information by the president or his top advisers.
"The president can declassify issues, the National Security Council can declassify issues," he said. "Sometimes you want to declassify because it's important for your investigation, or its important to send messages. This is part of what we need to look at."
Democrats had not joined Republican calls for a special counsel to look into the release of sensitive information. Ruppersberger said one reason a special prosecutor might be sought would be if there was "pushback" from the administration when investigators ask for documents and information.
"But from what I understand now, the administration has said they will fully cooperate," Ruppersberger said.
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Todd Eastham and Bill Trott)