Editorial: Get to bottom of security leaks

President Barack Obama speaks at the White House

President Barack Obama speaks at the White House in Washington (June 8, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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The American people need to know if someone in the Obama administration leaked classified information to the press about cyberattacks against Iran, an undercover agent in Yemen and "kill lists" of suspected terrorists targeted for execution in drone attacks. The nation's security may have been compromised.

The activities recounted recently in The New York Times and elsewhere were so richly detailed -- including conversations between the president and his top national security advisers in the White House -- that members of the president's inner circle cannot escape suspicion. A vigorous and focused investigation is essential.

Some members of Congress want a special prosecutor appointed to conduct the probe. Bad idea. That's a formula for an interminable fishing expedition. Attorney General Eric Holder tapped two federal prosecutors Friday to take a look. They should determine whether any laws were broken. But an administration investigating its own will inevitably have credibility problems, especially in an election year.

That leaves Congress. Lawmakers should investigate, but a sprawling probe with multiple hearings before an array of committees would be neither efficient nor productive. Congress should give the job to a small, bipartisan contingent of its members, perhaps selected from among those on the Senate and House intelligence committees.

As a rule, the federal government keeps too many secrets. Within reason, the American people need to know what the government is doing. So leaks can serve a valuable purpose. In this case they should focus the public's attention on drones, extrajudicial executions and cyberwar -- issues that deserve serious national scrutiny in this election year.

Obama is reportedly at the helm of a top-secret process to decide which suspected terrorists should be placed on an official "kill list." And when opportunities arose in the past to execute someone on the list -- including American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki -- Obama personally made the call to unleash the drones.

Leaks also led to detailed accounts of cyberattacks the United States launched to frustrate Iran's nuclear weapons program. Computers controlling centrifuges that Iran used to enrich uranium were infected by the Stuxnet computer code developed by the United States and Israel. Obama's decision to greenlight the sophisticated sabotage may be this nation's first direct cyberwarfare offensive.

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But leaks can also be destructive. Our enemies must be kept in the dark. Our allies have to be able to trust the United States to keep key secrets. And intelligence agencies have to be able to protect sources and methods. In this case the life of an undercover agent who foiled an al-Qaida plot involving an updated underwear bomb was jeopardized.

The call for an investigation is bipartisan. But only Republicans, such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), have accused the White House of leaking details to burnish Obama's image as a tough commander in chief, an allegation Obama blasted as "offensive."

The quick partisan turn this debate has taken makes it clear that conducting a responsible, nonpartisan probe won't be easy. But Congress has to rise to the occasion.


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