Vowing to stomp out a “culture of leaking,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions suggested Friday that he might go after journalists.
In announcing a crackdown on leaks, Sessions said he was taking the advice of career prosecutors in reviewing the Justice Department’s policy on media subpoenas. He said he respects the role of a free press.
“But it is not unlimited,” he said. “They cannot place lives at risk with impunity. We must balance the press’s role with protection of our national security and the lives of those who serve in our intelligence community, our armed forces, and all law-abiding Americas.”
Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, noted on air that Sessions did not take questions after delivering his statement.
“That kind of empty rhetoric demands evidence. It demands proof,” he said.
David Boardman, chairman of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, blasted the attorney general’s comments.
“What the attorney general is suggesting is a dangerous threat to the freedom of the American people to know and understand what their leaders are doing, and why,” he said in a statement.
Ken Boehm, chairman of a Washington ethics group called the National Legal and Policy Center, told LifeZette that it is arguably illegal for reporters to knowingly disseminate classified information. But he said the First Amendment and sensitivities complicate prosecuting journalists or holding them in contempt of court.
“It’s harder to do,” he said, adding that the simpler route may just be to identify and prosecute the leakers. “No administration wants to be seen as tromping on the line or too lose to the line.”
President Donald Trump’s administration has been beset by an avalanche of damaging leaks, some involving classified information and national security, and some that merely have been politically embarrassing. During a multi-day Twitter barrage against his attorney general, the president specifically mentioned a failure by the Justice Department to stop leaks.
On Friday, Sessions responded forcefully. He said the Justice Department has received almost as many referrals involving unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information in the past six months as the previous three years combined.
“Simply put, these leaks hurt our government,” he said.
Sessions said the department already has made progress, including indictments of four people. He said active leak investigations at the Justice Department have tripled since he took office and added that he has beefed up staffing directed at ferreting out leaks.
Sessions said he has instructed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray to personally oversee those probes. He said he also has instructed prosecutors throughout the government to prioritize leaking cases and that the FBI has created a new counterintelligence unit to address the issue.
“A culture of leaking cannot take hold,” he said.
Sessions’ message to the intelligence community, he added, is that the Department of Justice is open for business.
“And I have this warning for would-be leakers — don’t do it,” he said.
National Intelligence Director Dan Coats said leaks can jeopardize lives.
“In the last several years, the U.S. intelligence community has experienced some of the worst compromises in our nation’s history … We will simply not tolerate the illegal release of classified information,” he said.
All administrations suffer leaks. But the Trump administration has suffered nearly daily cuts.
“It is unprecedented,” said Boehm, of the ethics watchdog. “Most of the leaks, I believe, are due to the fact that there are so many holdovers from the previous administration.”
Boehm noted that President Ronald Reagan demanded immediate resignations of all political appointees of former President Jimmy Carter.
“He wasn’t the first,” he said. “I’m sure he’s not going to be the last to do so.”
Coats said there are plenty of avenues for government employees to report wrongdoing, including channels within the intelligence community protecting whistleblowers and congressional intelligence committees. But he and Sessions said they would not tolerate disgruntled employees using classified information to settle scores.
“No one is entitled to surreptitiously fight to advance battles in the media by revealing sensitive government information,” Sessions said.