One of the most powerful Republicans in the House fired a shot across President Obama's bow Thursday, saying a string of leaks about classified national security matters "are coming right from the top."
Over the last few weeks, a number of news articles have appeared in major publications detailing some of America's biggest secrets. The leaked data described a list of classified items, including Obama's personal list of suspected terrorists to target in drone attacks, and the role of U.S. security agencies in creating and deploying lethal computer viruses designed to interfere with Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program.
The string of apparent leaks "are over the top when we're at war," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon told reporters at a breakfast meeting in Washington.
"I think they're coming right from the top," the California Republican said, who plans to hold a hearing on the leaks in coming weeks.
National security and congressional analysts say there is little Congress and the national security agencies can do to prevent future leaks. But McKeon feels Obama, as the commander in chief, has the power to plug the leaks that McKeon and other security-minded lawmakers say hinder U.S. national security and strategic objectives.
"If we can put [on] enough pressure where the president can make it stop, that's the big thing," McKeon said of his goals for the upcoming hearing. "We will do what we can to get to the bottom of it."
Pressed by U.S. News & World Report on whether he believes Obama approved leaks to reporters of classified national security information, McKeon admitted he had "nothing to base the fact that he maybe told somebody to leak something."
"But he sure could do something about stopping it," McKeon added. "A public statement would help."
Obama has spoken publicly about the leaks, telling reporters during a June 8 briefing the he and his administration have "zero tolerance for these kinds of leaks and speculation."
Obama called Republican charges that the White House purposely disclosed classified information "offensive."
"When this information, or reports, whether true or false, surface on the front page of newspapers, that makes the job of folks on the front lines tougher and it makes my job tougher, which is why since I've been in office, my attitude has been zero tolerance for these kinds of leaks and speculation," the president said. "We have mechanisms in place where if we can root out folks who have leaked, they will suffer consequences. In some cases...these are criminal acts when they release information like this. And we will conduct thorough investigations, as we have in the past."
But McKeon suggests Obama has a track record of disclosing classified information.
"When I went out on a training mission with SEAL Team Six, I was told, 'They don't exist and we don't talk about them,' " McKeon said. "And of course, the president came out and told all about them, and what they did with gettting Osama bin Laden."
"I was told that was classified," he added.
Republicans are charging the Obama administration is purposely leaking the information to make the president look like a tough commander-in-chief as his re-election campaign kicks off.
Asked whether the leaks appear politically motivated, Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, says: "I honestly don't."
"My instinct is that the role of reporters is being underestimated and the scheming by executive branch officials is being overinturpreted," says Aftergood. "Reporters didn't have this dropped in their laps. They were out reporting. They were doing interviews and gathering information. They were testing those things out with other officials—that's what they do."
Aftergood says deliberately leaking national security information "to show how hairy-chested the president is ... would backfire these days."
McKeon acknowledges a president "can declassify anything—so if he wants to say something, I guess he can do it."
It remains unclear whether any of the classified information had been downgraded in classification before that data was shared with reporters.
Obama has ordered an investigation into the series of leaks, and a bi-partisan group of lawmakers is crafting a bill that could be ready next month that congressional sources say would put leakers of classified information behind bars.
Those senior lawmakers are discussing a list of issues, including giving government officials new powers to identify and prosecute government personnel who violate federal laws and non-disclosure agreements by sharing classified national security information, says one senior Senate aide. Those lawmakers also are discussing provisions authorizing enhanced investigations of unauthorized disclosures of such information, the aide says.
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.