Analysis: Leaks drip with confusion

Story highlights

  • Confusion surrounds three sets of leaks; FBI investigating at least two
  • Department of Justice division recused itself from one investigation
  • One official says chain of command might be to blame
It may be one of the most confusing set of investigations going on. It's not just about one leak, it's at least three, all part of exclusive news reports happening within a two-week period.
We know the FBI is investigating two of the unauthorized disclosures, one involving the report about a mole who helped thwart a Yemen bomb plot targeting the U.S. and the other about how the United States and Israel were behind Stuxnet, the mysterious computer virus that caused Iranian nuclear centrifuges to spin out of control.
It is unclear whether there is an investigation of yet another story concerning the Obama administration's expansion of the drone program and how it determines which suspected terrorists will be targeted for a missile strike.
Two congressional leaders say the Department of Justice's National Security Division had to recuse itself from one of the investigations, but we don't know from which one or exactly why.
Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was the first to bring it up during a news conference Thursday with his committee counterparts. But it was Rogers' comment that raised some eyebrows.
"DOJ National Security Division has recused itself from at least one element of the investigation, suggesting some of these leaks could have come from the sources within the DOJ or the FBI," said Rogers, R-Michigan.
The Justice Department is not officially commenting, but one official offered an explanation for why it might be so. The official said prosecutors from the National Security Division's Counterespionage Section and FBI investigate classified leak cases, and National Security Division leaders and supervisors sometimes recuse themselves to "avoid even the appearance of a potential conflict of interest down the road."
In practical terms, investigators would figure out all the people in government who had access to the information and interview them to look for who might have been the source of the leaks. If Justice Department national security officials might have been "read into" any of the classified matters in which there were leaks, they may be interviewed along with officials in the intelligence community and any other agencies who knew about the classified operations.
If counterespionage prosecutors and FBI agents could have to interview their supervisors, it would not be appropriate for those supervisors to oversee the investigation. So during the investigation, the agents and prosecutors would report to a different chain of command, which would not include anyone who might have had access to the classified material.
"Such a recusal is a routine matter and in no way suggests any wrongdoing on the part of these officials," the Justice Department official said. "What is ironic is that such efforts to go the extra mile to be ethical and avoid even the appearance of a potential conflict are being portrayed as something sinister."
Rogers later backed off his suggestion that the leaks could have come from within the Justice Department or the FBI. In a written statement later in the day, Rogers said, "I did not intend to suggest that this recusal implied that anyone in the division had improperly disclosed any information, but rather that the sorts of issues that can force a recusal show the serious complications facing the Department in investigating these matters."
However, Rogers' original statement suggesting that the Department of Justice or FBI might have been the source of leaks continued to be reported by the media.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she was aware of a recusal and she's OK with it.
At the congressional leaks news conference, Rogers also said he found it troubling that the CIA had informed the Intelligence Committee Thursday morning that it could not respond to the committee's request for information regarding leaks. The congressman would not specify which leak his committee was investigating.
In response, CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood said in a written statement, "We take seriously our responsibility to keep our oversight committees informed. There is absolutely no intent by CIA to withhold from our committees on the leaks issue. We all have to be careful not to jeopardize the DOJ criminal investigation that is running concurrently with the Congressional inquiry. We share Congress' concern and desire to get to the bottom of leaks and have every intention of cooperating fully with both DOJ and Congress."
A representative for Rogers said the congressman does not buy that explanation and believes the CIA could support both investigations.