WASHINGTON -- The independence and speed of two veteran prosecutors named by the Justice Department to investigate leaks of national security information could determine whether the controversy settles quickly or blossoms into an election-year problem for President Barack Obama.
The heads of the congressional intelligence committees said on a Sunday talk show that it was a "good start" for Attorney General Eric Holder to name U.S. attorneys from the District of Columbia and Maryland to investigate a series of national security leaks that have drawn bipartisan criticism.
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and her House counterpart, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said on CBS's "Face the Nation" that an investigation headed by U.S. Attorneys Ronald Machen of the District of Columbia and Rod Rosenstein of Maryland must be, in Ms. Feinstein's words, "nonpartisan, it has to be vigorous and it's got to move ahead rapidly."
The situation presents combustible election-year elements: the delicacy of the administration investigating itself, the unexpected consequences that could come if an independent special counsel were named, and the difficulty of ferreting out leaks to the news media in a town built on the trading of information.
The controversy is over a flurry of stories that have revealed the Obama administration's active role in clandestine operations against al-Qaida and other adversaries.
They include The Associated Press' reporting about a disrupted terrorist plot by al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen, stories in several publications about the expanded U.S. drone campaign in Yemen and articles in The New York Times that described Mr. Obama's role in approving "kill lists" for CIA drones and the use of computer viruses and cyberweapons against Iran.
Mr. Rogers, chairman of the House intelligence committee, said that in the absence of a special prosecutor more independent of Mr. Holder than the two U.S. attorneys, it will be important to learn whether Mr. Machen and Mr. Rosenstein have freedom to "go in following your leads where you find them, wherever that takes you."
He added: "So many asked the question -- me included -- can you have a U.S. attorney assigned through the attorney general investigate something that is clearly going to be at the most senior levels of all of the executive branch, [Defense Department] and FBI, the attorney general's office and even the president?"
The intelligence committees are exploring whether new laws are warranted to criminalize leaks of national security information. But Mr. Rogers and Ms. Feinstein presented an understated and bipartisan response to what has become increasingly hot rhetoric regarding the leaks.
Mr. Obama said on Friday that it was "offensive" to suggest that "my White House would purposely release classified national security information."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Mr. Obama's 2008 opponent and his most outspoken critic on the issue, replied that it was the situation that was "offensive" and repeated his call for a special counsel to investigate.
"I mean, it's obvious on its face that this information came from individuals who are in the administration," Mr. McCain said on CNN's "State of the Union." Asked directly whether he believed Mr. Obama was responsible for release of the classified intelligence, Mr. McCain replied:
"I have no idea whether the president knew or did not know." He added that "the president may not have done it himself, but the president is certainly responsible as commander in chief."
The charge that the Obama administration would leak classified information to make the president look tough on terrorism is at odds with the White House's record, said David Axelrod, the Obama political adviser who also made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows.
Historically, there have been only nine serious leak investigations, and six of them are prosecutions brought by the Obama administration. "We have come under attack because we have been tougher on leaks than any administration in recent history," Mr. Axelrod told George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week."
Mr. Stephanopoulos pointed out that some of the sourcing in the stories was from the president's national security team. But Mr. Axelrod said "the authors of all of this work have said the White House was not the source of this information. ... There were obvious leaks, but they weren't from the White House."
First Published June 11, 2012 12:00 AM