Two U.S. attorneys will lead a pair of criminal investigations already under way into possible unauthorized disclosures of classified information within the executive and legislative branches of government, Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday.
The announcement of the appointments followed President Barack Obama's denial that the White House had deliberately leaked classified national security information that was flattering to him in this election year, calling such allegations "offensive" and "wrong." He promised investigations into the source of leaks about U.S. involvement in cyber-attacks on Iran and drone strikes on suspected terrorists.
Recent news articles contained details of U.S. involvement in a partially successful computer virus attack on Iran's nuclear program and on the selection of targets for counterterrorism assassination plots. The leaked information generally painted Obama as a decisive and hands-on commander in chief, and Republican critics suggested the leaks were orchestrated to boost Obama's re-election bid.
Obama said his critics "need to have a better sense of how I approach this office and how the people around me here approach this office."
"We're dealing with issues that can touch on the safety and security of the American people, our families or our military personnel or our allies, and so we don't play with that," he told reporters at a news conference.
In a statement issued hours after Obama's remarks, Holder said he was confident that the prosecutors would follow the facts and evidence wherever they led.
"The unauthorized disclosure of classified information can compromise the security of this country and all Americans, and it will not be tolerated," he said.
Holder assigned Ronald Machen, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, and Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland, to direct separate probes that are already being conducted by the FBI.
Three weeks ago, FBI Director Robert Mueller said the bureau had launched an investigation into who leaked information about an al-Qaida plot to place an explosive device aboard a U.S.-bound airline flight. Separately, calls from Capitol Hill have mounted urging a leak probe into a New York Times story a week ago about U.S. involvement in cyberattacks on Iran.
Obama said his administration has "zero tolerance" for such leaks and that there would be an internal administration probe.
"We have mechanisms in place where if we can root out folks who have leaked, they will suffer consequences," the president said. "In some cases, it's criminal. These are criminal acts when they release information like this. And we will conduct thorough investigations, as we have in the past."
Leaders of the Senate and House intelligence committees said Thursday they were drafting legislation to further limit access to highly classified information and possibly impose new penalties for revealing it. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said he will investigate recent leaks.
Lawmakers have pointed to recent stories by The New York Times, The Associated Press and other news organizations that contain previously secret information and cite anonymous U.S. officials.
The strongest claims came Tuesday from Obama's 2008 election opponent, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "They're intentionally leaking information to enhance President Obama's image as a tough guy for the elections," McCain said after taking to the Senate floor to list some of the alleged breaches. "That is unconscionable."
McCain called on the administration to appoint an outside special counsel to investigate.
The House Intelligence Committee chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said his committee would formally investigate the leaks but that he was concerned about the level of cooperation he would get from two government agencies.
"Just today, the CIA informed the (committee) that it cannot respond to our request for information regarding the leaks, a very troubling event indeed," Rogers said.
The CIA has come under fire for allegedly sharing with Hollywood filmmakers classified details of last year's U.S. raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.
A Justice Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information, said some officials in the department's national security division recused themselves from one of the leak probes but that the department overall was investigating.
There are at least three investigations ongoing into disclosures of classified information.
Before becoming U.S. attorney, Machen helped lead the white-collar and internal investigation practices at the prominent Washington law firm of WilmerHale. He served as an assistant U.S. attorney from 1997 to 2001.
Machen is leading a high-profile political corruption probe of officials in the District of Columbia. The latest development in that investigation came this week when District of Columbia Council chairman Kwame Brown resigned after being charged with lying about his income on bank loan applications.
Rosenstein was an associate independent counsel who worked for Whitewater prosecutor Ken Starr from 1995 to 1997. He was co-counsel in the fraud trial of Jim and Susan McDougal, the former real estate partners of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Both of the McDougals were convicted in a trial that also resulted in the conviction of then-Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker.
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said he hopes that the Justice Department brings "the full force of the law against these criminals."
"We need to send a clear message to anyone who considers leaking sensitive information and putting Americans at risk: If you leak classified information, you will face jail time," Smith said in a statement.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called Machen and Rosenstein "strong, capable, independent prosecutors" and said the Justice Department's consultation with the Judiciary and Intelligence committees was an aid to congressional oversight.
AP National Security Writer Anne Gearan and AP writer Wendy Benjaminson contributed to this report.