Lawmakers May Start Issuing Subpoenas Over National Security Leaks

Rep. James Sensenbrenner says it might be time for a 'bipartisan subpoenaing session.'

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Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner in Washington, D.C.

Scandals are commonplace in Washington. But rarely do political stories making headlines produce what is generally reserved for television dramas: congressionally-issued subpoenas followed by tense hearings complete with the grilling of senior White House officials.

Yet, that scene is exactly what several powerful House lawmakers floated Wednesday, raising the possibility that a recent spate of national security leaks could culminate with Obama administration officials called to Capitol Hill for hours of pointed questions from lawmakers.

Michigan Democrat Rep. John Conyers, a House Judiciary Committee member, told Republican panel leaders during a hearing Wednesday that "if someone is not cooperating with [an ongoing federal] investigation, we should talk to them, and we should subpoena them."

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Conyers appeared to be calling his GOP colleagues' bluff by pressing them for a list of names of any Obama administration officials they can prove are stonewalling federal investigators.

But GOP Judiciary Committee Chairman, Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, quickly doubled down.

"If you're going to support an effort to subpoena," Smith shot back, "I'll take you up on that."

Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner urged both men to draw up dueling lists of administration officials Congress might order to testify.

"I think we can have a good, bipartisan subpoenaing session," Sensenbrenner said with a noticeable gleeful tone.

Lawmakers are expected to hold off on forcing senior White House officials to testify until after the Justice Department has completed a probe of the leaks.

Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, says Congress simply isn't up to the task.

"I don't see a role for congressional subpoenas regarding leaks. Congress is not a law enforcement agency, and it is not equipped to conduct criminal investigations," says Aftergood. "On the other hand, it has every right to conduct oversight and it should expect and demand full cooperation from the administration in exercising that oversight."

For over a month, national security officials and lawmakers have been looking into numerous stories that have run in major publications that describe several top-secret security programs to the public. The leaked data detailed a number of classified efforts, including President Obama's list of suspected terrorists targeted in drone strikes, and the role of U.S. security agencies in developing and setting loose computer viruses on Iran's alleged nuclear arms program.

Several House Judiciary Committee members discussed the idea of moving aggressively to subpoena or otherwise target journalists and news outlets that knowingly publish classified government information.

"Why are we affording...more protection to a reporter than anyone in the [White House] Situation Room?" asked an agitated South Carolina GOP Rep. Trey Gowdy.

"Congress is within its rights to investigate these leaks and to call government officials to testify," says Patrice McDermott, executive director at OpenTheGovernment.org. "Subpoenaing reporters for doing the legitimate work of informing the public, though, would have a chilling effect on the First Amendment and could impede the public's right to know what its government is doing. An informed public depends on many sources of information, not only those that are 'authorized' by the government."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter. 

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