McCain Calls for Special Counsel to Investigate Leaks

Updated below

Sen. John McCain asked the Obama Administration to appoint a special counsel to investigate recent leaks of classified information to the news media.  He condemned the disclosure of classified information in several recent news stories involving U.S. cyber attacks on Iran’s nuclear program and the use of drones in targeted killing programs, among others.  And he accused the Obama Administration of willfully promoting the disclosures.

The leaks appear to be part of “a broader effort by the administration to paint a portrait of the President of the United States as a strong leader on national security issues,” Sen. McCain said on the Senate floor yesterday.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss echoed that assessment.  “From kill lists and bin Laden movies to cyber warfare, it appears nothing is off-limits, nothing is too secret, no operation is too sensitive, and no source is too valuable to be used as a prop in this election year posturing.”

Sen. McCain therefore demanded an urgent investigation into the leaks.

“I call on the President to take immediate and decisive action, including the appointment of a special counsel, to aggressively investigate the leak of any classified information on which the recent stories were based and, where appropriate, to prosecute those responsible,” he said.

Sen. McCain indicated that Sen. Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had agreed to hold hearings on the subject.

Beyond the expression of outrage, Sen. McCain’s statement had a number of other interesting features.

He noted the “unacceptable” incongruity of prosecuting lower-level personnel such as Bradley Manning, Jeffrey Sterling or John Kiriakou for allegedly leaking classified information while holding senior officials blameless for what appear to be comparable offenses.

“The fact that this administration would aggressively pursue leaks perpetrated by a 22-year-old Army private in the Wikileaks matter and former CIA employees in other leaks cases but apparently sanction leaks made by senior administration officials for political purposes is simply unacceptable,” Sen. McCain said.

Sen. Chambliss added that “This administration reminds us repeatedly that they are prosecuting more people for leaking classified information than ever before, and I support that effort. But just as we hold ordinary government employees accountable for violating their oaths to protect our Nation’s secrets, we must also hold the most senior administration officials accountable.”

Sen. McCain also made the complicating observation that leaks of classified information are normal, to be expected, and sometimes positively desirable.

“As my colleague well knows, the leaks are part of the way the environment exists in our Nation’s capital, and leaks will always be part of the relationship between media and both elected and appointed officials. I understand that. I think my colleague would agree there have been times where abuses have been uncovered and exposed because of leaks…, and we have always applauded that,” Sen. McCain said.

Further, he noted, “There has also continuously been a problem of overclassification of information so government officials don’t have to–be it Republican or Democratic administrations–discuss what is going on publicly.”  But he did not call for a special counsel to investigate overclassification or propose other measures to address that problem.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein also issued a statement yesterday condemning leaks.  She noted her intention to include new provisions in the pending intelligence authorization bill to require “more forceful investigations of unauthorized disclosures” and “additional authorities and resources for the U.S. government to identify and prosecute” those who leak classified information.

Update: The White House Press Secretary said today that “We are not going to comment on any of the specific information contained in the articles referenced by Senator McCain. This administration takes all appropriate and necessary steps to prevent leaks of classified information or sensitive information that could risk ongoing counterterrorism or intelligence operations. Any suggestion that this administration has authorized intentional leaks of classified information for political gain is grossly irresponsible.”

One Response to “McCain Calls for Special Counsel to Investigate Leaks”

  1. C Ronk June 6, 2012 at 11:47 AM #

    “But he did not call for a special counsel to investigate overclassification or propose other measures to address that problem.”

    Thank you for noting this.

    Legislation should also be pursued, a la the language of past executive orders on the subject, criminalizing the knowing and willful classification of information on spurious grounds – national security or otherwise – with the intent to use the classification power to cover up government misconduct or malfeasance, or other embarrassing official information. That would give the classification system a little more credibility.

    One more point: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (www.fair.org) once noted the useful distinction, which is not made enough, between a “leak” and a “plant”, the former being of the Bradley Manning variety, i.e. exposing government misconduct that is wrongfully concealed etc., the latter being the dispensing of secret information for selfish reasons, usually political gain. Insofar as McCain is concerned with “a broader effort by the administration to paint a portrait of the President of the United States as a strong leader on national security issues,” he is talking about plants, not leaks. This matters because leaks do not deserve the condemnation that plants do, and should not be subsumed under the same category heading.