The White House has been put on the defensive by accusations from senior lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), that it sanctioned disclosures to call attention to President Obama’s national security accomplishments in an election year.
White House spokesman Jay Carney disputed that charge Wednesday, saying, “Any suggestion that this administration has authorized intentional leaks of classified information for political gain is grossly irresponsible.”
The exchange followed a flurry of recent stories that revealed details about clandestine operations against al-Qaeda and other adversaries — and Obama’s apparently active role in running them.
The stories included an Associated Press account of a disrupted terrorist plot by al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, stories about the expanded U.S. drone campaign in Yemen, and articles in the New York Times that described Obama’s role in approving “kill lists” for CIA drones and the use of cyberweapons against Iran.
Lawmakers also have expressed anger over other revelations, including that the administration provided assistance to Hollywood filmmakers working on a movie about the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The White House also was criticized for holding a conference call on the disrupted plot in Yemen with former counterterrorism officials who are now paid commentators on cable news programs.
That call, which involved White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, galled some on Capitol Hill because the administration had failed to inform key committees, including the Senate’s intelligence panel, about the bomb plot until after it had been reported in the media.
Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the administration has done “a handful” of such calls over the past few years with the aim of helping experts explain important counterterrorism developments to the public. “Nothing classified was disclosed,” Vietor said.
McCain renewed his criticism Wednesday, noting that some of the stories that have painted Obama in the most flattering light have included information attributed to “administration officials,” “aides” to the president and “members” of his national security team.
McCain called for a probe by a special counsel.
There is an aspect of irony in such criticism, given that the Obama administration has been more aggressive in prosecuting leak cases than any of its predecessors. But critics note that those cases have tended to involve lower-level government officials and reporters, rather than powerful figures with access to the White House Situation Room.
Leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees said they would press the administration to mount criminal investigations of leaks. A congressional aide said lawmakers planned to meet with Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III on Thursday.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has indicated that she also intends to push to require the administration to notify the committees in cases of “authorized disclosures,” such as the Brennan conference call.