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Congress Warns Intel Leaks Put ‘Lives at Risk’

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Top Democrats and Republicans Thursday demanded an end to leaks of classified intelligence because, they said, the leaks are putting lives at risk and jeopardizing future operations.

Thursday afternoon, the senior Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees joined together with Republicans to denounce a recent flood of national security leaks about U.S. covert actions in counterterrorism and espionage, and to announce their collective effort to investigate the recurring issue of classified information being disclosed in the media.

Earlier this week, the FBI has opened a leak investigation into the disclosures in the New York Times last week that President Obama ordered the intelligence community to speed up cyber attacks against Iran with the Stuxnet worm, according to federal law enforcement officials. In recent weeks, there have also been stories about the president’s “kill list” of al Qaeda drone targets and another about the double agent who helped the U.S. foil the latest attempted al Qaeda attack on a U.S. airline.

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called recent leaks “one of the most serious of breaches” that he has seen in 10 years sitting on the committee.

“It puts us at risk. It puts lives at risk,” said Ruppersberger, D-Md. “It hurts us in recruiting assets that give us intelligence information that will allow us to protect our citizens, to work through issues that are so important to the whole issue of peace throughout the world and how we protect our citizens throughout the world.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence committee, echoed those concerns, warning that “leaks jeopardize American lives,” and have an adverse impact on intelligence employees in the field.

“We are not finger-pointing,” she said. “This has to stop. When people say they don’t want to work with the United States because they can’t trust us to keep a secret, it’s serious.”

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said there is “a clear need for a formal investigation,” with the investigative power to examine any office or department of the United States government “free of influence from those who conducted or reviewed the programs at issue.”

“It’s not just an isolated incident, and that’s what has brought us together. It seems to be a pattern that is growing worse and more frequent,” Rogers said. “The severity of the leaks are serious.”

Feinstein said that over the next month she will work with Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the vice chairman of the intelligence committee, to change language to the Senate authorization bill to shore up weaknesses exposed by the recent string of classified leaks. The House has already passed an intelligence authorization for financial year 2013, but the California senator said that any changes to the language will be written in close consultation with House intelligence leaders.

Some GOP senators, like Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., believe the leaks are politically motivated to help President Obama’s reelection campaign. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Thursday morning that he is “concerned about the leaks,” but he would not opine on whether he believes the leaks were politically motivated.

“I’m not going apply any motives to this, but when we leak sensitive data, we disclose methods, we disclose activities that put our intelligence officials and our military in a more dangerous position. It should not happen,” Boehner said.

Still, Feinstein and Ruppersberger were reluctant to suggest that the leaks were politically motivated or could affect the election. Feinstein asked for “a little more time” to consider the merits of assigning a special prosecutor to scrutinize the leaks. She said one of the things she is considering is a possibility of giving inspectors general “more investigatory authority.”

“It’s clear that the security aspects of the existing agencies haven’t really done the job, and we need to find out why,” Feinstein said. “A special prosecutor can take years, we don’t have years. We need to legislate and we need to get some solutions.”

Aboard Air Force One Wednesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said there were no orchestrated leaks by the White House -- and certainly not for political gain.

As Congress works to enact changes to prevent leaks from ever occurring in the first place, Ruppersberger suggested changing the culture of how classified material is shared in order to limit the number of people exposed to intelligence secrets.

“The first thing we have to do is we have to change the culture of anybody who works in the intelligence community, to educate them and let them know how serious these leaks are and the ramifications,” Ruppersberger said. “If you violate that policy, you’re going to be held accountable. That’s important.”

Earlier this week, McCain announced that the Senate Armed Service committee, on which he is the ranking member, will schedule hearings on the leaks sometime soon. McCain also first proposed appointing a special counsel to investigate what happened with each of the specific leaks and to potentially prosecute those responsible.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio