The sweeping FBI criminal investigation has prompted intelligence officials to decline to talk about security issues.
WASHINGTON - FBI 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 media 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 CIA, 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 disclosures of intelligence information; and permit the government to strip the pension of an intelligence officer who illegally discloses classified information.
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, the presumed presidential nominee, and other Republicans have added an election-year spin to the old Washington tussles over government secrecy, accusing the White House of leaking secrets to enhance President Obama's image. Romney has sought to taint the centerpiece of Obama's security record, the killing of Osama bin Laden, calling White House disclosures about the raid "contemptible."
The Obama administration has set a record for prosecuting leaks of classified information to the media, with six cases to date, more than under all previous presidents combined. But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., suggested that the FBI was foot-dragging and should zero in on high-level administration officials.
The FBI appears to be focused on recent media disclosures on U.S. 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 said.
Already the deterrent effect of the inquiry on officials' willingness to discuss security issues has been striking. Some officials and media advocates say Americans are learning less about their government's actions. "People are being cautious," said one intelligence official.
Gregg Leslie, the interim executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, an advocacy group, said the effect of the 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. He said, "Reporters are beginning to resort to the old practice of meeting on a park bench to avoid leaving an electronic trail."