J. Scott Applewhite/AP
From left, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, take turns at the microphones at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, to assert their belief that President Obama's administration has orchestrated disclosure of classified information for political gain.

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.

You lie.

They may not be yelling at President Obama amid his State of the Union message, as Rep. Joe Wilson (R) of South Carolina famously did, but that was the message Senate Republicans had for the president Tuesday over his recent denials that members of the White House were behind leaks of sensitive intelligence information.

While leaks occur almost perpetually in Washington, an election season that has banished most other substantive items from Congress’s plate makes leaks prime territory to score political points.

Disclosure of secret information about Iran’s nuclear program and American covert efforts to disrupt it, among a handful of other intelligence issues, has driven members on both sides of the aisle up the wall with fury.

Confronted with concerns about disclosures at a press conference in early June, Mr. Obama told reporters that allegations that the White House “would purposely release classified national security information is offensive.”

At a press conference Tuesday, Republican senators were having nothing of it. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona quoted an extended excerpt  from New York Times reporter David Sanger’s recent book, "Confront and Conceal,"  that reports senior White House intelligence officials disclosing intelligence relating to Iran’s nuclear program.

“Obviously the notion that his White House would purposely release classified national information is ‘offensive’ is contradicted by the facts,” Senator McCain said. Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the Senate intelligence committee’s top-ranking Republican, said one covert action program revealed in Mr. Sanger’s book was so protected that it was news to the intelligence world’s congressional overseers.

“We as members of the Intelligence Committee can't even confirm whether these programs exist, and yet you have the national security adviser talking about a covert action program" to a reporter, Senator Chambliss said.

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.”

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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