WASHINGTON -- Four top lawmakers on the House and Senate intelligence committees condemned recent national security leaks during a Thursday news conference and announced plans for legislation to prevent future breaches.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said she and her fellow lawmakers are not voicing concerns as a way of "finger pointing at anybody," including the White House. "What we're trying to do is say we have a problem and we want to stop that problem," she said. "We're not finger pointing."
Feinstein, joined by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), promised new legislation to crack down on leaks of classified information, The issue has gained traction since the publication of two front-page New York Times stories last week providing new details about President Barack Obama's secret terrorist "kill list" and the U.S. government's cyberattacks on Iran's nuclear facilities.
The four lawmakers said they recently met with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and planned to sit down with FBI Director Robert Mueller. Feinstein said the four members "will be working together to try to produce some changes in the Senate [Defense] Authorization Bill, which has not been completed."
"The House has completed their bill but we have not," Feinstein said. "And, so, we will work with the House membership on language that can be acceptable to both sides to codify a certain process which we hope will be more efficient in retarding leaking ... this, obviously because of the timing, will have to be done in the next month or so."
When asked later about the suggestion from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that the leaks had been politically motivated, Feinstein demurred. "One thing we said, wherever the chips fall, they fall," Feinstein said. "But we want a fair investigation. We want to be able to see that we have the processes in place to deal with it. I do not believe that we do at the present time."
Chambliss, the vice-chairman of the committee, said that "wherever the responsibility falls out, that's where it's going to be. If it's in the administration, fine, and if it's not in the administration, fine."
"This is not meant to be a political exercise," Chambliss said. "This is too critical to the future of the intelligence community of the United States. And it's our intention to just to get to the bottom of the issue of these leaks."
In the past 24 hours, a bipartisan Congressional chorus has expressing concerns on cable news shows over national security leaks. Some lawmakers suggested that the White House had sanctioned intelligence disclosures for its own political gain, in an attempt to depict the president as strong and decisive when dealing with suspected terrorists and the Iranian government.
Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), in a Fox News interview Wednesday, said that he "[didn't] think you have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what is going on here."
"I don't think the president called up the reporter," Graham said later in the interview. "But look at the stories. They talk about people inside the Situation Room, talking to reporters on background that were in a meeting with the president, a blow-by-blow description of how you decided which targets to hit, which baseball cards to act on."
"I'm suggesting somebody in the White House is orchestrating an effort to leak classified information and programs to make the president look good," Graham said. "To think otherwise is just absurd."
On Thursday morning, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said the Senate should convene a closed hearing on the leaks and that the matter "shouldn't be a part of the usual political football in Washington" but "should be examined in a way that's substantive, that's thorough and that's balanced so that we arrive at the truth."
The Obama administration, which has relentlessly pursued previous leaks, has appeared less bothered by the two Times stories, prompting claims the administration had approved the leaks for the president's benefit in an election year.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that "any suggestion that this administration has authorized intentional leaks of classified information for political gain is grossly irresponsible."
Following the Thursday news conference, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement that while the White House will not comment on the specific information contained in the articles, "as a general matter, the President feels strongly that we must prevent leaks of classified or sensitive information that could risk ongoing counterterrorism or intelligence operations."
"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," Vietor said.
Vietor also reiterated Carney's statement, saying that "any suggestion that the White House has leaked sensitive information for political purposes has no basis in fact, and has been denied by the authors themselves." He also pointed out that "one of the authors of the Times story on Obama’s counterterrorism record said, 'the notion that the White House prompted the story or controlled our reporting and writing is absurd.'"
In a Thursday interview, Times managing editor Dean Baquet defended the articles, telling The Huffington Post that both were deeply reported, had been published when ready and were focused on substantive national security issues.
"Both the rise and use of drones and the increased use of cyberwarfare are the kinds of issues that we have a public service mission to surface so they can be part of a national debate," Baquet said.
"That's our job," he added. "That's our primary job, to report things that should be part of the national discussion."