Congress Warns Intel Leaks Put 'Lives at Risk'

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Top Democrats and Republicans today demanded an end to leaks of classified intelligence because, they said, the leaks are putting lives at risk and jeopardizing future operations.

This afternoon, the senior Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees joined together with Republicans to denounce a recent flood of national security leaks about U.S. covert actions in counterterrorism and espionage, and to announce their collective effort to investigate the recurring issue of classified information being disclosed in the media.

Earlier this week, the FBI has opened a leak investigation into the disclosures in the New York Times last week that President Obama ordered the intelligence community to speed up cyber-attacks against Iran with the Stuxnet worm, according to federal law enforcement officials. In recent weeks, there have also been stories about the president's "kill list" of al Qaeda drone targets and another about the double agent who helped the U.S. foil the latest attempted al Qaeda attack on a U.S. airline.

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called recent leaks "one of the most serious of breaches" that he has seen in 10 years sitting on the committee.

"It puts us at risk. It puts lives at risk," said Ruppersberger, D-Md. "It hurts us in recruiting assets that give us intelligence information that will allow us to protect our citizens, to work through issues that are so important to the whole issue of peace throughout the world and how we protect our citizens throughout the world."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence committee, echoed those concerns, warning that "leaks jeopardize American lives," and have an adverse impact on intelligence employees in the field.

"We are not finger-pointing," she said. "This has to stop. When people say they don't want to work with the United States because they can't trust us to keep a secret, it's serious."

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said there is "a clear need for a formal investigation," with the investigative power to examine any office or department of the United States government "free of influence from those who conducted or reviewed the programs at issue."

"It's not just an isolated incident, and that's what has brought us together. It seems to be a pattern that is growing worse and more frequent," Rogers said. "The severity of the leaks are serious."

Feinstein said that over the next month she will work with Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the vice chairman of the intelligence committee, to change language to the Senate authorization bill to shore up weaknesses exposed by the recent string of classified leaks. The House has already passed an intelligence authorization for financial year 2013, but the California senator said that any changes to the language will be written in close consultation with House intelligence leaders.

"We will work with the House membership on language that can be acceptable to both side to codify a certain process which we hope will be more efficient in retarding leaking and also being able to stop it, and also being able to evolve more tools to control it and, where it cannot be controlled, to be able to take additional actions," Feinstein said.

Some GOP senators, like Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., believe the leaks are politically motivated to help President Obama's reelection campaign. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters this morning that he is "concerned about the leaks," but he would not opine on whether he believes the leaks were politically motivated.

"I'm not going apply any motives to this, but when we leak sensitive data, we disclose methods, we disclose activities that put our intelligence officials and our military in a more dangerous position. It should not happen," Boehner said. "The administration should heed the advice of former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, when, after the bin Laden raid and a lot of details were coming out, he promptly went over to the White House and used some colorful language to try to stop any more leaks from occurring."

Chambliss said he was "extremely upset" about not only the leaks, but also "a cascade of leaks coming out of the intelligence community over the last several weeks and months."

"It's our clear intention to put a stop to this in the best way that we can," he said. "Leaks are part of the nature of this town. We understand that, but the fact of the matter is when you have the kind of leaks that have been coming out in the last few weeks, it put lives in danger and it infringes upon the ability of the intelligence community to do their job."

Still, Feinstein and Ruppersberger were reluctant to suggest that the leaks were politically motivated or could affect the election. Feinstein asked for "a little more time" to consider the merits of assigning a special prosecutor to scrutinize the leaks. She said one of the things she is considering is a possibility of giving inspectors general "more investigatory authority."

"It's clear that the security aspects of the existing agencies haven't really done the job, and we need to find out why," Feinstein said. "A special prosecutor can take years, we don't have years. We need to legislate and we need to get some solutions."

Chambliss agreed and said the leaders' inquiry into the leaks "is not meant to be a political exercise." Earlier this morning, the quartet met with the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, and has scheduled an afternoon meeting with FBI Director Robert Mueller.

"Wherever the responsibility falls out, that's where it's going to be, and if it's in the administration, fine. If it's not in the administration, fine," Chambliss said. "This is too critical to the future of the intelligence community and the United States, and it's our intention just to get to the bottom of the issue of these things and as we move forward try to put measures in place that not only will make it more difficult for future leaks to occur but the consequence of those leaks be dealt with immediately and strongly."

Aboard Air Force One Wednesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said there were no orchestrated leaks by the White House - and certainly not for political gain.

"Any suggestion that this administration has authorized intentional leaks of classified information for political gain is grossly irresponsible," he said.

Rogers said the CIA informed his committee today that it cannot respond to the panel's requests for information on the leaks, which he said was "very troubling."

"The committee has material suggesting that the agencies were directed to expand the scope of classified information they gave to the press. We know, in some cases, someone from a segment of the media was present in a classified setting," Rogers said. "The [Department of Justice]'s National Security Division has recused itself from at least one element of the investigation, suggesting some of these leaks could have come from the sources within the DOJ or the FBI. And from publicly available comments, it appears that the sources of these leaks could be in a position to influence the investigations."

As Congress works to enact changes to prevent leaks from ever occurring in the first place, Ruppersberger suggested changing the culture of how classified material is shared in order to limit the number of people exposed to intelligence secrets.

"The first thing we have to do is we have to change the culture of anybody who works in the intelligence community, to educate them and let them know how serious these leaks are and the ramifications," Ruppersberger said. "If you violate that policy, you're going to be held accountable. That's important."

Earlier this week, McCain announced that the Senate Armed Service committee, on which he is the ranking member, will schedule hearings on the leaks sometime soon. McCain also first proposed appointing a special counsel to investigate what happened with each of the specific leaks and to potentially prosecute those responsible.