Many lawmakers were incensed—for differing reasons—by the recent New York Times report detailing how President Obama attempted to derail Iran’s nuclear program by secretly ordering cyberattacks on computer systems that run its enrichment facilities.
Some accused the Obama administration of leaking the information for political gain ahead of an election. Others worried that the attack, apparently the first time the U.S. used cyberweapons in a sustained effort to damage another country’s infrastructure, sidelines Congress’s oversight prerogatives or could allow bad actors to justify their own attacks.
Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., said last week’s report was “an intentional breach of the most highly classified operations that the United States is carrying out, and therefore compromises our security.”
The Times report attributed some information to current U.S. officials. “They are intentionally leaking information to enhance President Obama’s image as a tough guy for the elections,” McCain said. “That is unconscionable.”
Blasting a “disturbing stream of articles” about classified or highly sensitive information, McCain later said on the floor that the Armed Services Committee will be holding hearings on leaks. McCain, along with Intelligence Committee ranking member Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., called on Obama to appoint a special counsel to investigate the leaks—and, where appropriate, prosecute those responsible.
Top Democrats such as Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., also called the report—and another detailing the administration’s use of drone strikes—“damaging” to national security, even as he rejected the idea that the administration itself disseminated the information for political reasons.
White House press secretary Jay Carney on Monday denied the story was the result of an authorized leak.
Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she spoke with the article’s author, reporter David Sanger. “He assured me this was just all information that had been released. I don’t see it that way,” Feinstein said. “There is no question that this kind of thing hurts our country.”
Feinstein, in a statement, said she sent a classified letter to the president on Tuesday outlining her deep concerns about the continuing leaks of classified information to the media—and has spoken with Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., about possibly holding joint hearings to investigate. Feinstein also said she intends to include provisions within the fiscal 2013 intelligence authorization bill provisions requiring more forceful investigations of unauthorized disclosures.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, worries the publicity of the attack could undermine sensitive negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. And he said that increasing reliance on cyberweapons and unmanned drones should concern lawmakers because only Congress can declare war. “No administration should be permitted to assert high tech exceptions to the U.S. Constitution,” said Kucinich, who had also sued Obama for launching the Libya operation without seeking congressional approval.
These weapons must be subject to the same laws, oversight, and accountability as conventional weapons, Kucinich added. “It is time for Congress to … create a legal framework which reflects the changing face of modern-day warfare.”
Feinstein told reporters this sabotaging attack by the U.S. means other countries, terrorists or hackers will now—“to some extent”—be able to justify their own use of cyber attacks.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., disagreed. He considers a cyber attack against U.S. national security infrastructure “a hostile act” – but doesn’t feel the same way about an American attack against Iran. “I would urge us to embrace not only sanctions as a way to stop what I think is a nuclear program designed to develop weapons capability…I’d put all options on the table including military force, cyber attacks.”
Foreign Relations ranking member Richard Lugar, R-Ind., also said the cyber attack appeared to be “an appropriate tool.” Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said: “Every minute of every day there are a lot of nefarious characters trying to do everything they can with the Internet to disrupt the United States. ...There’s nothing wrong with playing offense.”