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Washington - Attorney General Eric Holder has appointed two U.S. attorneys to lead investigations into a possible White House leak of classified information, even as President Barack Obama challenged suggestions that his administration was involved in such disclosures.
In a statement issued late Friday, Holder said that he has notified members of Congress that he has assigned the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Ronald Machen, and another for Maryland, Rod Rosenstein, to lead criminal investigations into the "possible unauthorized" leaks to reporters for several recent news stories and books.
Holder said the investigations will be conducted separately from the probes launched in recent days by the FBI into the possible disclosure of classified information to reporters. Prosecutors from the Justice Department's National Security Division will be involved in both investigations, a law enforcement source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
At the White House on Friday, Obama forcefully disputed charges from Republican lawmakers that his administration had been complicit in the sensitive information being made public.
"The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive. It's wrong," Obama said at a morning news conference. The president added that there were "mechanisms in place" to "root out folks who have leaked."
"They will suffer consequences," he said. "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."
Congressional leaders, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have pressured the White House to appoint a special counsel to investigate the matter. Several lawmakers said this week that they plan to introduce legislation meant to restrict the leaking of sensitive national security information to news outlets, and suggested that they might attempt to restrict access to confidential information.
McCain and others cited several stories published in recent weeks that detail key national security decisions, including a New York Times article chronicling Obama's approval of a "kill list" of suspected terrorists targeted with drone attacks, reports in the Times and The Washington Post regarding U.S. involvement in cyberattacks on Iran's nuclear program and details in a new book by Newsweek special correspondent Daniel Klaidman about the administration's deliberations on the detention of suspected terrorists.
"This has been as serious a problem as I have seen," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said this week.
McCain said that "what is grossly irresponsible is U.S. officials divulging some of the most highly classified programs involving the most important national security priorities facing our nation today."
Obama said that "the writers of these articles have all stated unequivocally that they didn't come from this White House."
Holder said that Machen and Rosenstein "are fully authorized to prosecute criminal violations," consult with members of the intelligence community and follow all leads within the executive and legislative branches of government.
"The unauthorized disclosure of classified information can compromise the security of this country and all Americans, and it will not be tolerated," Holder said.