WASHINGTON — The White House helped touch off a row with John McCain Wednesday after it said the senior Senate Republican was "grossly irresponsible" for accusing top members of the Obama administration of leaking classified information.

McCain, Barack Obama's rival in the 2008 presidential contest, had blasted the White House on the Senate floor and then on national television for the data leaks about ongoing national security operations.

He said the leaks were expressly aimed at boosting Obama's image as being tough on Iran and extremist networks, but could end up putting American lives in danger.

McCain had pointed in particular to leaks about three operations: Obama's push for cyber attacks on the computer systems 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 and the Horn of Africa.

The three programs were reported on in recent weeks by The New York Times, which said many of the articles' sources were former or current administration officials.

"Such disclosures can only undermine similar ongoing or future operations and, in this sense, compromise national security. For this reason, regardless of how politically useful these leaks may be to the president, they have to stop," McCain said in the Senate on Tuesday.

White House spokesman Jay Carney took issue with McCain's characterization of the breaches as administration leaks, saying the White House "takes all appropriate and necessary steps to prevent leaks" of classified or sensitive information that could risk ongoing operations.

"Any suggestion that this administration has authorized intentional leaks of classified information for political gain is grossly irresponsible," Carney told reporters.

McCain immediately countered. "No, what is grossly irresponsible is US officials divulging some of the most highly classified programs involving the most important national security priorities facing our nation today."

"Laws have apparently been broken," McCain said, adding that he has called for appointment of a special counsel to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the leaks.

An aide to Carl Levin, Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Levin has decided to hold a hearing on the matter.

Several lawmakers have joined a chorus of condemnation over the leaks, including Democrat Dianne Feinstein who chairs the Select Committee on Intelligence.

"The accelerating pace of such disclosures, the sensitivity of the matters in question, and the harm caused to our national security interests is alarming and unacceptable," she said in a statement.