WASHINGTON – Federal investigators looking into disclosures of classified information about a cyberoperation that targeted Iran’s nuclear program have increased pressure on current and former senior government officials suspected of involvement, according to people familiar with the investigation.
The inquiry, which was started by Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. last June, is examining leaks about a computer virus developed jointly by the United States and Israel that damaged nuclear centrifuges at Iran’s primary uranium enrichment plant. The U.S. code name for the operation was Olympic Games, but the wider world knew the mysterious computer worm as Stuxnet.
Prosecutors are pursuing everybody – at pretty high levels, too, said one person familiar with the investigation. There are many people who’ve been contacted from different agencies.
The FBI and prosecutors have interviewed several current and former senior government officials in connection with the disclosures, sometimes confronting them with evidence of contact with journalists, according to people familiar with the probe. Investigators, they said, have conducted extensive analysis of the email accounts and phone records of current and former officials in a search for links to journalists.
The people familiar with the investigation would speak only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. The Justice Department declined to comment.
The Obama administration has prosecuted six officials for disclosing classified information, more than all previous administrations combined. But the Stuxnet investigation is arguably the highest-profile probe yet, and it could implicate senior-level officials. Knowledge of the virus was likely to have been highly compartmentalized and limited to a small set of Americans and Israelis.
The proliferation of e-mail and the advent of sophisticated software capable of sifting through huge volumes of it have significantly improved the ability of the FBI to find evidence. A trail of email has eased the FBI’s search for a number of suspects recently, including John Kiriakou, the former CIA officer who was sentenced Friday to 30 months in prison for disclosing to a journalist the identity of a CIA officer who had spent 20 years under cover.
Late last year, retired Gen. David Petraeus resigned as CIA director after the FBI discovered e-mails in one of his private accounts showing that he had an extramarital affair with his biographer.
Holder appointed Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, to lead the Stuxnet inquiry after a article in the New York Times about President Obama ordering cyberattacks against Iran using a computer virus developed in conjunction with Israel.
At the same time, Holder named Ronald Machen Jr., the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, to head a criminal investigation into leaks concerning the disruption of a bomb plot by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Holder’s action followed complaints from members of Congress, including the heads of the intelligence committees, about both leaks.
Machen is examining a leak to The Associated Press that a double agent inside al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen allowed the United States and Saudi Arabia to disrupt the plot to bomb an airliner using explosives and a detonation system that could evade airport security checks.
People are feeling less open to talking to reporters given this uptick, said a person with knowledge of Machen’s inquiry. There is a definite chilling effect in government due to these investigations.
Since the probes were announced, there has been little publicity about the ongoing inquiries.
The Justice Department declined to provide statistics on how many leak investigations were launched during Obama’s first term. Between 2005 and 2009, according to an April 2010 Justice Department letter that was sent to a Senate committee, intelligence agencies notified the department 183 times about leaks.
The FBI opened 26 investigations and identified 14 suspects.