White House backs Holder’s decision to appoint U.S. attorneys to probe leaks

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The White House is standing by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s decision to appoint two U.S. attorneys to investigate the recent spate of national security leaks, rejecting Republican arguments that only an outside counsel would be independent enough for such a task.

White House spokesman Jay Carney on Monday briefly said “there is no need for a special counsel” to look into the national security leaks, arguing that “these things have been consistently investigated” by the Justice Department.

“There are very capable people in the Department of Justice,” he said, referring all additional questions to the Justice Department.

Mr. Holder on Friday announced the decision to tap two U.S. attorneys to look into the leaks of classified material, but Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, the leading critic of the national security breaches, immediately rejected the decision to allow the Justice Department to investigate the administration.

“We are confident the two U.S. attorneys hand-picked by Attorney General Holder are fine men. However, if there was ever a situation where we needed an outside special counsel that would enjoy bipartisan acceptance and widespread public trust, it is now,” Mr. McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said in a joint statement.

After articles about a U.S. “kill list” governing drone attacks and another about U.S. cyber-attacks on Iranian computers appeared in the New York Times over the past few weeks, Mr. McCain began railing against the leaks, blaming them on administration officials trying to make Mr. Obama look like a tough, decisive leader ahead of the November election.

The president reacted to the accusations with indignation during a news conference with reporters Friday morning, just hours before Mr. Holder announced he had appointed two chief federal prosecutors to lead a pair of investigations into the leaks.

“The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive,” he said, pledging to get to the bottom of them.

David Axelrod, a top adviser to Mr. Obama, aggressively pushed back on Sunday’s talk shows at accusations that the White House deliberately leaked the national security information even as ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos pointed out that the New York Times articles quoted dozens of current and former Obama administration officials and members of the president’s national security team who were “in the room” for some of the decisions.

“I think the authors of all of this work have said that the White House was not the source of this information,” Mr. Axelrod replied. “I can’t say that there weren’t leaks. There were obvious leaks, but they weren’t from the White House.”

Last week at a Capitol Hill news conference, the Republican and Democratic leaders of both House and Senate intelligence committees pledged to work together to draft legislation tightening up the law on disclosures of classified information.

Such disclosures are not necessarily themselves criminal acts, but there are an arsenal of criminal charges prosecutors can bring to bear. If the information is considered vital to the national defense, if it is disclosed to a foreign government or if it reveals the identity of U.S. intelligence officials operating undercover, then the leaker can be hit with felony charges carrying long sentences.

For instance, the Obama administration Justice Department has initiated six prosecutions of leakers under the 1917 Espionage Act, a broad law with multidecade prison terms that was enacted as the U.S. was entering World War I.

By comparison, 2010 congressional testimony from FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III showed that from 2005 to 2009, 183 referrals were made. Only 17 investigations were launched, and these succeeded in identifying among them a total of 15 suspects. None were prosecuted.

“Most referrals do not result in full-fledged investigations; most investigations do not identify suspects,” said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, who publishes a daily email newsletter on secrecy matters and is an advocate for more open government.

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