WASHINGTON — F.B.I. agents on a hunt for leakers have interviewed current and former high-level government officials from multiple agencies in recent weeks, casting a distinct chill over press coverage of national security issues as agencies decline routine interview requests and refuse to provide background briefings.
The criminal investigation, which has reached into the White House, the Pentagon, the National Security Agency and the C.I.A., appears to be the most sweeping inquiry into intelligence disclosures in years. It coincides with Senate consideration of new legislation, designed to curb intelligence officials’ exchanges with reporters, that intelligence veterans and civil libertarians fear could be counterproductive and may raise constitutional issues.
The legislation approved last week by the Senate Intelligence Committee would reduce to a handful the number of people at each agency permitted to speak to reporters on “background,” or condition of anonymity; require notice to the Senate and House intelligence committees of authorized disclosures of intelligence information; and permit the government to strip the pension of an intelligence officer who illegally discloses classified information.
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Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, the presumed presidential nominee, and other Republicans have added an election-year spin to old Washington tussles over government secrecy, accusing the White House of leaking secrets to enhance President Obama’s image. Mr. Romney has sought to taint the centerpiece of Mr. Obama’s security record, the killing of Osama bin Laden, calling White House disclosures about the raid in Pakistan “contemptible.”
The Obama administration has set a record for prosecuting leaks of classified information to the news media, with six cases to date, more than under all previous presidents combined. But on the Senate floor on Wednesday, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, suggested that the F.B.I. was foot-dragging and should zero in on high-level Obama administration officials.
Mr. McCain said he was “frankly puzzled” that investigators were taking so long, since the relevant articles and books cited “a relatively small number of senior officials.”
The F.B.I. appears to be focused on recent media disclosures on American cyberattacks on Iran, a terrorist plot in Yemen that was foiled by a double agent and the so-called “kill list” of terrorist suspects approved for drone strikes, some of those interviewed have told colleagues. The reports, which set off a furor in Congress, were published by The New York Times, The Associated Press, Newsweek and other outlets, as well as in recent books by reporters for Newsweek and The Times.
In June, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., rejecting Republican calls for a special prosecutor, directed the United States attorneys for Maryland and the District of Columbia to investigate the leaks. While some officials have indicated that their primary focus has been on the cyberattacks and the Yemen plot, some of those interviewed have been questioned about the targeted killing of terrorists.
Employees of several agencies have been directed to preserve records related to the cases under review. Early interviews have appeared to be informational in tone, rather than accusatory, some employees have said, as agents try to master the facts on complex secret programs and trace press reports about them.
Already the deterrent effect of the investigation on officials’ willingness to discuss security and foreign policy issues, presumably one purpose of the leak crackdown, has been striking. Some government officials and press advocates say Americans are learning less about their government’s actions.
“People are being cautious,” said one intelligence official who, considering the circumstances, spoke on condition of anonymity. “We’re not doing some of the routine things we usually do,” he added, referring to briefings on American security efforts and subjects in the news.
Gregg Leslie, the interim executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, an advocacy group, said the effect of the current investigation comes on top of a growing awareness by journalists in the last two years that the government often tracks employees’ e-mail and telephone contacts.
“Reporters are beginning to resort to the old practice of meeting on a park bench to avoid leaving an electronic trail,” he said.
The Senate antileak proposals got strong bipartisan support in the intelligence committee, with only Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, voting against them. But in recent days the proposed bill has been pilloried by former officials and civil liberties groups and has gotten no public support from current intelligence officials, the White House or the House Intelligence Committee.
Critics have pointed out that the new rules would be highly selective, applying only to the intelligence agencies and not to the White House, the State Department — or to Congress itself. In addition, they say, by prohibiting official background briefings by subject-matter experts who do not want to be named publicly, the bill could actually prompt reporters to seek out unofficial sources, leading to more uncontrolled disclosures.
“Everybody in the intelligence world agrees that we have never seen so many high-level leaks,” said Mark M. Lowenthal, a former assistant director of the C.I.A. “But this is the wrong solution.”
W. George Jameson, a lawyer who spent most of his 30-year C.I.A. career in the general counsel’s office, said the Senate bill also could be unconstitutional on separation-of-powers grounds. “It’s the legislative branch telling the executive branch how to deal with executive-branch classified information,” he said.
Rigid rules can backfire, Mr. Jameson said. Often, a reporter who obtains classified information calls an agency to check facts or alert officials to a pending story. Remaining mum, he said, often makes no sense.
“Sometimes you have to reveal classified information to protect classified information,” Mr. Jameson said. “Things move fast, and there are no bright lines.”
Brian Weiss, a spokesman for Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the intelligence committee, said she was aware of the potential problems. “The bill is a work in progress,” he said. “Senator Feinstein is looking at the comments and is open to changes as it moves forward.”
A closer look at the recent disclosures reveals some of the complexity. The Stuxnet computer worm that destroyed some Iranian nuclear centrifuges, for example, first came to light not from press leaks but from computer security companies that saw its consequences in several countries. The New York Times had reported in January 2009 that President George W. Bush had authorized attacks on Iranian computer networks; more recent articles provided more detail on the American role in the attacks, and Mr. Obama’s oversight of them.
Some experts say the underlying cause of damaging disclosures is the overclassification of routine information. “People who regularly deal with classified information lose all respect for the system because so much of what they see is improperly classified,” said Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University law school.
She noted that more than 4.8 million government employees and contractors now held security clearances. “That’s not a recipe for keeping secrets,” she said.