The bitter election-year battle over alleged White House leaks of national security secrets is heating up again -- this time fueled by President Barack Obama's pick for CIA director.
Obama's nomination of counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to lead the CIA is reviving long-simmering claims that the president's aides leaked classified information to bolster his reelection chances.
Much of the attention on Brennan's nomination has focused on his deep involvement with the Obama administration's expanded use of armed drones to kill terrorism suspects and on claims that Brennan didn't strongly protest aggressive interrogation techniques such as waterboarding during the Bush administration when he served as an intelligence official.
But the leak issue but could become even more politically potent than liberals' worries about drones or Bush-era interrogation tactics.
"John Brennan has not been absolved of responsibility for the slew of high-level security leaks that have characterized this White House," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told POLITICO in a statement Monday. "This investigation needs to be resolved before his nomination can move forward."
An aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "The questions about national security leaks by this administration have not yet been answered, and that will obviously be an issue as the Senate considers his nomination."
A former senior administration official also said Monday that Brennan's dealings with journalists could come under scrutiny during the next few weeks.
Last spring and summer, Republicans alleged that White House aides and other administration officials were seeking to boost Obama's reelection prospects by leaking national security information about counterterrorism operations and efforts to undermine Iran's nuclear program.
Justice Department officials said Monday that criminal probes into the leaks are ongoing, but they offered no updates about any progress. "The case is still active," one official said.
"It's not on people's radar, but this could be an issue," said the former administration official, who asked not to be named discussing a potential downside of Brennan's nomination. "He's a guy who comes across as a strong, silent type who never speaks, [but] he actually does a lot of talking both internally with the president and externally with select, influential reporters. ... I'm not saying the guy seeks it, but [other White House officials] view him as the most credible internal mouthpiece on national security matters."
Brennan is expected to be confirmed. He's a 25-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency and has won the respect of many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
But some of the potential stumbling blocks for his nomination began to emerge Monday afternoon.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) signaled that he'll hold up Brennan's nomination until the administration releases more information about its handling of the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.
Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said he has significant concerns about Brennan and Obama's nominee for defense secretary, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).
"I have serious questions about both appointments. The process is designed to allow for very probing questions, and that is what I look forward to," said Chambliss, who did not elaborate.
Obama said Monday that he would not have much patience for any delays to the confirmation of Brennan or Hagel.
"I just want to repeat I hope that the Senate will act on these confirmations promptly," the president said. "When it comes to national security, we don't like to leave a lot of gaps between the time that one set of leaders transitions out and another transitions in. So we need to get moving quickly on this."
The White House acted swiftly to counter accusations of national security leaks last spring.
McCain charged in June that the leaks came from "the highest levels of the White House" to "paint a portrait of the president of the United States as a strong leader on national security issues."
Several Democrats, including Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of California, also expressed strong concern about the disclosures, though without suggesting they were politically tinged.
"I think the White House has to understand that some of this is coming from their ranks," Feinstein told the World Affairs Council in Washington last July.
Obama angrily denied in a news conference that his aides were leaking information. "The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive -- it's wrong," the president said in June. He did not specifically address whether his aides could have inadvertently revealed classified information.
Attorney General Eric Holder turned aside Republican calls for an independent counsel and tapped two U.S. attorneys -- Ronald Machen of Washington, D.C., and Rod Rosenstein of Maryland -- to lead investigations into the leaks.
"The unauthorized disclosure of classified information can compromise the security of this country and all Americans, and it will not be tolerated," Holder said at the time. "The Justice Department takes seriously cases in which government employees and contractors entrusted with classified information are suspected of willfully disclosing such classified information to those not entitled to it, and we will do so in these cases as well."
Brennan reportedly played some role in at least one of the episodes in which sensitive national security information was disclosed to journalists.
Last May, as a story was unfolding about the disruption of a Yemen-based plot to bomb an aircraft bound for the U.S., Brennan held a private teleconference with national security and terrorism commentators for the major television networks, Reuters reported. On the call, Brennan said the plot didn't pose a direct threat because the U.S. had "inside control" of it, according to the wire service.
Within hours, ABC reported that U.S. officials "had somebody on the inside who wasn't going to let it happen." By the following day, press accounts said the U.S. had a mole inside Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The Reuters story suggested Brennan helped set in motion news reports that caused the operation to be shut down prematurely, but the White House called that notion "ridiculous."
In Brennan's public comments on the broader leak controversy, he denounced some of the disclosures but also suggested critics of the White House had gone too far.
"There have been some devastating leaks," Brennan said during a question-and-answer session in August. "I don't want to validate any of the things that are out there, but it's unconscionable what has gone out."
Brennan said Obama had "made his displeasure abundantly clear to his senior team" about the leaks.
However, Brennan said many of the specific claims that "individuals" leaked information were "highly irresponsible." He did not cite any particular examples.
Asked Monday about the episode and the possibility that Brennan's nomination could reopen questions about leaks, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the counterterrorism adviser has tried to keep sensitive national security information out of the public domain.
"Everyone who works with John Brennan knows he is a straight shooter who would never harm national security," Vietor said. "At the White House, John has worked to prevent the publication of information that would harm our national security. Over the last four years, we have decimated Al Qaeda's leadership, but Brennan has consistently warned that we must remain vigilant -- particularly against Al Qaeda's affiliates in places like Yemen, Somalia and North Africa."
The White House referred questions about the status of the leak investigations -- and whether Brennan was interviewed as part of them -- to the Justice Department.
Cabinet nominees are normally subjected to FBI background checks before their nominations are announced. It's unclear whether the ongoing leak inquiries would complicate that process.
Two of the most prominent congressional critics of the national security leaks, McCain and Graham, did not address the issue in their official statements Monday -- though both raised concerns about other aspects of Brennan's record.
Graham said he wants to know more about the CIA's role in the Benghazi attack.
"I have not forgotten about the Benghazi debacle and still have many questions about what transpired before, during and after the attack on our consulate," Graham said. "In that regard, I do not believe we should confirm anyone as Director of the CIA until our questions are answered -- like who changed Ambassador Susan Rice's talking points and deleted the references to al Qaeda? My support for a delay in confirmation is not directed at Mr. Brennan, but is an unfortunate, yet necessary action to get information from this Administration."
McCain focused his attention on Brennan's role in the aggressive interrogation tactics used during Bush's tenure.
"I appreciate John Brennan's long record of service to our nation, but I have many questions and concerns about his nomination to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, especially what role he played in the so-called enhanced interrogation programs while serving at the CIA during the last administration, as well as his public defense of those programs," McCain said. "I plan to examine this aspect of Mr. Brennan's record very closely as I consider his nomination."
Feinstein said in a statement that she has concerns about how Brennan will address the interrogation-related issues from the Bush era.
"I will be discussing with Mr. Brennan the Intelligence Committee's recently completed report on CIA detention and interrogation operations from 2001 to 2009 and will ask how he would respond to the report's findings and conclusions if confirmed," she said.
Feinstein had no direct comment on the leaks issue Monday, but intelligence community sources previously said she was upset about the reports that television commentators had received a special briefing on the Yemen operation.
She also proposed legislation to block many background briefings and to prevent consultants from media organizations from gaining access to classified information.
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