WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional intelligence committee leaders turned up the heat on the White House over alleged national security leaks on Thursday, with the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee suggesting she might be willing to join Republican demands for an investigation by a special counsel.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s Democratic chairwoman, told reporters she needed more time to consider Republican demands - voiced earlier this week by Senator John McCain and committee vice chair Saxby Chambliss - for a special counsel to probe how highly sensitive secrets were disclosed to news media.
The Intelligence Committee chiefs and other legislators have called for urgent investigations into recent media disclosures 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.
McCain has suggested that some of the leaks may have been calculated to boost the election prospects of President Barack Obama - something White House spokesmen emphatically deny.
Feinstein cautioned that she was still pondering the “special counsel” idea for the current leak inquiries because “A special prosecutor can take years. We don’t have years. We need to legislate and we need to do things quickly.”
She suggested she might propose legislation to give inspectors general of government departments more investigatory authority.
Historically, some special counsels, such as the prosecutor who conducted a lengthy leak-related investigation that led to the conviction of a top aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney on obstruction and perjury charges, have been accused of pursuing witch-hunts.
Feinstein and Chambliss joined the House Intelligence committee’s Republican chairman Mike Rogers and ranking Democrat C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger at an unusual Capitol Hill news conference following a closed-door meeting on the leaks issue with James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence.
There were fresh indications on Thursday that even if Attorney-General Eric Holder does not formally appoint a special counsel, the Justice Department could create some kind of special chain of command to handle leak inquiries.
At the news conference, Rogers said portions of the Justice Department’s National Security Division (NSD) had removed themselves from elements of at least one current leak investigation.
Rogers later issued a statement clarifying that he did not mean to suggest wrongdoing by Justice Department officials, but was merely pointing out the hazards of a Justice Department-led investigation of the leaks.
A Justice official, without confirming any recusals, said that top counter-terrorism and counter-espionage officials in the National Security Division sometimes opted out of investigations and prosecutions “to avoid the appearance of a potential conflict of interest.”
“Such a recusal in no way suggests any wrongdoing on the part of these officials,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A law enforcement official said leak investigations were conducted by the counter-espionage branch of the NSD. Given the possibility that NSD leaders might have to be interviewed in an investigation of leaks about secret operations they may have officially known about, it could raise questions about possible conflicts of interests if frontline prosecutors were required to interview their own bosses, the official said.
In similar cases, the Justice Department on its own initiative had assigned supervision of such cases to outside officials, the official said.
One recent example was Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago who acted as special counsel in the investigation of Cheney aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby in connection with the leaking of a CIA operative’s identity.
Rogers also said the CIA had told lawmakers it could not respond to their request for information about the spate of leaks, a development he called “very troubling indeed.”
However, Preston Golson, a CIA spokesman, told Reuters: ”There is absolutely no intent by CIA to withhold from our committees on the leaks issue.
“We all have to be careful not to jeopardize the DOJ criminal investigation that is running concurrently with the Congressional inquiry. We share Congress’ concern and desire to get to the bottom of leaks and have every intention of cooperating fully with both DOJ and Congress.”
Official concern over the handling of classified information and national security has escalated into a presidential campaign-season issue.
Obama’s Justice Department has been criticized by media and civil liberties advocates for prosecuting low-level leakers. Now the White House may face accusations of encouraging higher-level officials to engage in large-scale leaks about programs that embellish the president’s national security credentials.
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said recent suggestions that the White House leaked sensitive information for political purposes have “no basis in fact.”
“The president feels strongly that we must prevent leaks of classified or sensitive information that could risk ongoing counter-terrorism or intelligence operations.”
Rogers said his committee had materials suggesting U.S. agencies had been directed to expand the scope of classified information they gave to the media. “We know in some cases someone from a segment of the media was present in a classified setting,” he said.
A congressional source said Rogers was apparently referring to access given by the CIA and the Pentagon to filmmakers preparing a movie about the commando operation that killed Osama bin Laden.
Chambliss said legislators would talk with FBI director Robert Mueller to discuss the leaks on Thursday afternoon. He said the FBI was already conducting a leak investigation.
Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis. Editing by Warren Strobel and David Brunnstrom