WASHINGTON Lawmakers expressed concern on Thursday about a spate of recent national security leaks but said they were convinced that top Pentagon officials view the issue seriously and have taken steps to prevent the release of secret material.
"We're concerned about the leaks that have come out over the years and accelerated, it seems, over the last few months," Representative Buck McKeon said after a closed-door hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army General Martin Dempsey, the military's top uniformed officer.
Recent disclosures about U.S. cyber warfare against Iran, procedures for targeting militants with drones and a double agent who penetrated a militant group in Yemen have angered lawmakers. Some have charged the leaks were timed to benefit President Barack Obama's re-election bid.
McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, said Panetta, Dempsey and top Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson agreed that recent leaks had caused damage but did not go into details.
McKeon said he did not believe the most recent leaks had come from the Pentagon. He said the defense officials assured members of the House Armed Services Committee that they have put procedures in place to help prevent leaks.
"Both the chairman and I were very convinced that Secretary Panetta and all of the folks at the Pentagon are taking it seriously, are trying to mitigate the damages and prevent it in the future," said Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the panel.
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little told a briefing on Thursday that Panetta, Dempsey and members of the House committee were of one mind about the leaks.
"The unauthorized disclosure of classified information is truly disturbing," he said. "It's of concern to the secretary. And I think members on the Hill express similar concern. And the secretary is clearly prepared to try to address the problem inside the department."
McKeon said the U.S. government was "actually doing pretty good" in handling its secrets, given the fact that 4 million people have some form of classified clearance.
Although he said he did not believe the Pentagon was the source of the most recent leaks, McKeon declined to comment on whether the White House was responsible.
Senator John McCain, Obama's Republican opponent in the 2008 presidential election, has suggested some of the leaks may have been calculated to boost the president's re-election efforts - a charge the White House emphatically denies.
(Reporting By Donna Smith; Writing by David Alexander and Eric Walsh)