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Why Washington springs leaks in election season

GOP lawmakers said Tuesday they don't believe Obama's denials of White House-sanctioned leaks about US efforts to disrupt Iran's nuclear program. Leaking for political purposes has a storied past in Washington.

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Republicans are not the only ones expressing concern. Even before Obama’s news conference, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that she was “deeply disturbed by the continuing leaks of classified information to the media.” She subsequently sent a letter to Obama charging that "disclosures of this type endanger American lives and undermine America’s national security.”

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Even if the current leaks are to a greater extent than Republican lawmakers say they’ve ever seen, there are at least two other reasons they are receiving so much attention. 

First, as McCain said, “the professionals in the intelligence community, not the political appointees, are beside themselves.”

But professionals get incensed whenever their work gets leaked to the media, says Wayne White, a policy expert at the Middle East Policy Council with nearly three decades of experience in the US intelligence community. And that occurrence is hardly a rarity.

“Administrations – both Republican and Democratic – have leaked sensitive classified material for various political purposes going back decades," Mr. White wrote in an analysis posted on the website of National Journal.

"Several times when I was serving in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) and was infuriated by a particular leak, I was informed by superiors that they had been told the leak had been ‘authorized’ (as if that somehow excused the violation of relevant laws and documentation signed upon appointment by politicians pledging not to do so),” he added.

What’s different today? Presidential politics, White said in an interview with the Monitor. He doesn’t believe claims that today’s leaks go far beyond what’s happened over the past three decades. He cites examples from both administrations, including one particularly poignant evening when, coming home from work, he clicked on his TV and watched Dan Rather deliver a report on American hostages in Lebanon that relied on sources straight from a classified project he was working on at the time.

“Other leaks,” White says, “have been equally outrageous.... [Congressional outrage] is typical election-year hyperbole.”

He agrees with McCain and others that leaks have a terrible effect on professional intelligence agents, calling them "infuriating and demoralizing." But they also deserve another descriptor: perpetual. 

McCain also put the leaks squarely into a political context: Such disclosures “have at the end of the day one purpose ... and that is to make the president of the United States look like a brave, strong leader on national security.”But his next point may not ring so true: “What has taken place, I have never seen anything like in the many years I have been here."

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