McCain introduces resolution calling for special counsel over security leaks

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

(CBS News) Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Tuesday introduced a Senate resolution calling for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate a series of recent high-level national security leaks, arguing in remarks on the Senate floor that using White House-appointed attorneys could prevent a suitably thorough investigation.

"I can't think of any time that I have seen such breaches of ongoing national security programs as has been the case here," McCain said. "Here we are with a very serious breach of national security -- in the view of some, the most serious in recent history, and it clearly cries out for the appointment of a special counsel."

In light of a spate of recent New York Times stories containing what would appear to be high-level security information -- including pieces about Mr. Obama's alleged "kill list," U.S. cyber attacks on Iran and more -- concerns have been raised about the source of the leaks, which have been condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike.

President Obama has denied that the White House is behind the leaks, and vowed last week that those who were responsible would "suffer consequences."

"We will conduct thorough investigations as we have in the past," the president said.

But McCain has repeatedly cast doubt on that assertion, pointing to examples in which Obama administration officials were referenced anonymously in stories in which sensitive information was divulged, and contending that the articles are politically favorable to the president.

"Among the sources that the authors of these publications list, the sources that they -- they list -- and I'm quoting from these publications, 'administration officials,' 'senior officials,' 'senior aides to the president,' 'members of the president's national security team who were in the White House situation room during key discussions,' an official who 'requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program,'" McCain said in remarks on the Senate floor.

"I'm quoting all of these from the publications," he continued, ticking off several more sources anonymous cited in related pieces.

The author of at least one of the stories cited by McCain, a Times story suggesting Mr. Obama had secretly ordered sophisticated cyber attacks on the computers that run Iran's main nuclear enrichment facilities, has said the story did not come from the White House, but that the White House "had to make some decisions about how much they wanted to talk about it" when confronted with the fact that the story would be running.

"I spent a year working the story from the bottom up, and then went to the administration and told them what I had," said David Sanger, the story's author, in an interview with "Face the Nation." "Then they had to make some decisions about how much they wanted to talk about it. All that you read about this being deliberate leaks out of the White House wasn't my experience."

McCain does not appear to be satisfied with that response.

"As always with this leaking which goes on in this town, although not at the level that I have ever seen, I think we need to ask ourselves first is, who benefits," he said Tuesday. "Certainly not national security. Not our military and intelligence professionals or our partners abroad, who are more exposed as a result of these leaks. I think the answer to the question: 'Who benefits?'"

"The overall impression left by these publications is very favorable to the president of the United States," McCain continued.

Attorney General Eric Holder has appointed two lawyers to investigate the leaks, and defended their abilities at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday.

"We have people who have shown independence, an ability to be thorough and who have the guts to ask tough questions," Holder said. "And the charge that I've given them is to follow the leads wherever they are, whether it is -- wherever it is in the executive branch or some other component of government. I have great faith in their abilities."

Republicans, however, argue a special counsel is needed due to a possible conflict of interest if the sources are indeed coming from the White House.

"These two U.S. attorneys, I don't know them at all. I'm sure they are fine men. But the special counsel provisions that are available to the attorney general need to be embraced because it creates an impression and, quite frankly, a legal infrastructure to put the special counsel above common politics," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the resolution's co-sponsors, in remarks on the Senate floor. 

Graham accused Democrats of upholding a double standard when it comes to appointing a special counsel.

"If you needed one in Valerie Plame, and you needed one in Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist who infiltrated the highest level of the government, why wouldn't you need one here?" he asked. "Is this less serious? The allegations we're talking about here are breathtaking."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, has ferociously criticized the leaks, but said Tuesday she opposed the appointment of a special counsel.

"To have a fight over how we do this now will set back any leak investigation," she said.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., contended that a special counsel should be appointed only if or when it had been discovered that "high administration officials" were giving improper information to investigators.

"If we find that some high administration officials are not giving proper information or whatever to your investigators, that kind of lack of cooperation might then merit a special counsel, but we're not at that point yet," Schumer said.