Updated June 9, 11 am EDT
Most famously, there were the Pentagon Papers, volumes of secret Defense Department analyses of Vietnam delivered by a disaffected analyst turned war-protester, Daniel Ellsberg, to the New York Times in 1971.
There was Valerie Plame, the CIA operative whose identity was disclosed by the Bush administration in 2003 to discredit her husband’s debunking of pre-Iraq war intelligence. The vice president’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, paid a steep price for a leak which ultimately started with Richard Armitage at the State Department.
Now the New York Times is in the mix again, with articles containing what looks like high-level secrets — including President Barack Obama’s so-called “kill list” of targets for terrorist-hunting drones, U.S. cyber attacks against Iran’s nuclear program and more.
And Capitol Hill is stirring.
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential election, accuses the administration of selectively releasing classified information for political gain. “This is a breach of national security… You can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig,” McCain said on CBS News’ “This Morning” this week. He wants the Senate to order a special investigation of the leaks.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, has vowed to halt the leaks. Joined by members of both parties on the committee this week, she said: “This has to stop.”
(Update: Now the Justice Department is investigating the leaks, with two prosecutors assigned to separate investigations with the authority to probe both the Executive and Legislative branches. Attorney General Eric Holder last night appointed Ronald C. Machen Jr., the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, and Rod J. Rosenstein, U.S. attorney for Maryland, to head probes, saying in a statement: “I have every confidence in their abilities to doggedly follow the facts and the evidence in the pursuit of justice wherever it leads.”)
Obama said that his administration already is working to find the origin of the leaks, and took special exception to McCain’s suggestion that the administration has intentionally distributed anything for political purposes.
“That’s not how we operate,” Obama said at a brief news conference Friday at the White House held to discuss the economic situation in Europe and his call for Congress to take action on job creation.
“The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive,” Obama said. “It’s wrong and people, I think, need to have a better sense of how I approach this office and how the people here around me approach this office.”
“We’re dealing with issues that can touch on the safety and security of the American people,” Obama said. “We don’t play with that. It is a course of consistent frustration, not just for my administration, but for previous administrations, when this stuff happens, and we will continue to let everyobody know in government, or after they leave government, that they have certain obligations they have to carry out.”
“If we can root out people who have leaked, they will suffer consequences,” Obama said. “In some cases, it’s criminal… These are criminal acts.”
Message to the Hill: The leaks didn’t start in that office, but the buck does stop there.