The top US lawmakers overseeing intelligence stood united Thursday in demanding an end to a "cascade" of national security leaks, as they scrambled to draw up legislation to rein in breaches that they say jeopardize lives.
Several members of Congress have fumed this week over a series of news reports, some quoting anonymous administration officials, that reveal details of covert US operations.
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chair Dianne Feinstein said she wants Congress to swiftly enact legislation tightening rules to prevent unauthorized data breaches, and welcomed an investigation launched by the FBI into leaks that have infuriated lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
But she held back on calling for a special prosecutor to look into the leaks, which some Republicans, notably Senator John McCain, say were done in order to give President Barack Obama the image of a tough commander-in-chief in an election year.
"A special prosecutor can take years," Feinstein told reporters, with committee ranking Republican Saxby Chambliss and the two leaders of the House intelligence committee at her side.
"We don't have years. We need to legislate, we need to get some solutions before us very quickly."
"This has to stop," she said of the leaks. "It puts lives at risk."
The bipartisan quartet -- Feinstein, Chambliss, Republican congressman Mike Rogers and ranking Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger -- were briefed Thursday by the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, who Chambliss said was "extremely upset" about the developments.
The group later met with FBI chief Robert Mueller, whose agency has launched an official investigation.
"All of us are extremely upset about the fact that not only have leaks occurred but there's been just a cascade of leaks coming out of the intelligence community over the last several weeks and months," Chambliss said.
Several explosive stories have emerged recently, including Obama's push for cyber attacks on computers that run Iran's nuclear facilities; an apparent "kill list" of counterterrorism targets against whom Obama has authorized lethal action; and a secret drone campaign against terrorists in Yemen.
The New York Times reported that sources for their articles on the covert programs included former or current administration officials.
Rogers said it was too early to determine whether the leaks had a political bent, although he said the overall problem "seems to be a pattern that is growing worse and more frequent," and he was critical of the administration's apparent "inability to keep a secret."
"To have all four of us come forward today and talk about the severity of these leaks I hope sends a very clear message about how dangerous this has become," Rogers said.
"There is a clear need for a formal investigation," he said.
The White House, which clashed with McCain by calling his accusations that the leaks were for political gain "grossly irresponsible," said Obama would not agree to an independent counsel to probe the breaches.
The administration is taking "all appropriate and necessary steps to prevent leaks of classified information or sensitive information that could risk our counterterrorism operations," Obama's spokesman Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One.
"Any suggestion that the White House has leaked sensitive information for political purposes has no basis in fact."
But Obama's Republican White House rival, Mitt Romney, believes the president should take greater charge in order to stop the leaks in their tracks.
"Leadership starts at the top. It's his sincere hope that the president is using all means at his disposal to put an end to this harmful practice," Romney campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg told AFP.
McCain, who lost the 2008 presidential race to Obama and is now a key Romney supporter, reportedly stood by his accusation on Thursday, and received backing from Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
"It has to be for reelection," King told Politico magazine about the leaks.
"They can deny it all they want. But it would require a suspension of belief to believe it's not being done for political purposes."
Feinstein gave no details of what tools she would seek to insert into legislation in order to prevent future leaks.
And she downplayed any fallout of a major investigation ahead of November's election, saying a probe should not be seen as a political ploy against the president.
"This is not finger pointing at anybody," she said.
Explore further: McCain calls for special cybersecurity panel