Sessions cranking up investigations of leaks
Disclosing classified material is targeted by attorney general.
The U.S. attorney general said he would file charges against people disclosing classified information.
Attorney WASHINGTON — General Jeff Sessions announced Friday that the Justice Department was pursuing three times as many leak investigations as were open at the end of the previous administration, a significant devotion of law enforcement resources to hunt down the sources of unauthorized disclosures of information that have plagued the Trump administration.
Sessions vowed that the Justice Department would not hesitate to bring criminal charges against people who had leaked classified information. He also announced that the FBI had created a new counterintelligence unit to manage the cases.
“I strongly agree with the president and condemn in the strongest terms the staggering number of leaks undermining the ability of our government to protect this country,” he said.
The announcement by Sessions comes 10 days after President Donald Trump publicly accused his attorney general of being “very” weak on pursuing leak investigations.
Sessions also said he had opened a review of Justice Department rules governing when investigators may issue subpoenas related to the news media and leak investigations.
“We respect the important role that the press plays and will give them respect, but it is not unlimited,” he said. “They cannot place lives at risk with impunity.”
The news conference came against the backdrop of repeated pressure by Trump, in public and in private, for the Justice Department and the FBI to search for people inside the government who have been telling reporters what was happening behind closed doors.
The Justice Department declined to disclose specific figures for the number of open investigations it is now pursuing.
President Barack Obama’s administration oversaw a crackdown on people who talked to reporters about government secrets without authorization, bringing more leak-related criminal cases than all previous presidents combined. But Trump has suggested an even harder line.
In February, Trump told then-FBI Director James Comey that the bureau should consider prosecuting reporters for publishing classified information, according to one of Comey’s associates.
Sessions on Friday did not respond to a question about whether such a step, which would raise First Amendment issues, was under consideration.
The department’s rules require investigators to exhaust all other ways to obtain the information they are seeking before subpoenaing journalists for notes or testimony that could force them to help investigators identify their confidential sources.
In 2013, after a backlash in Congress and the news media over aggressive tactics to go after reporters’ information in leak investigations, then-Attorney General Eric Holder decided to revise those rules to tighten limits on when the government is allowed to subpoena telephone companies for logs of a reporter’s phone calls, which could reveal their confidential sources.
The changes made it harder for law enforcement officials to obtain such logs without providing advance notice and giving news organizations a chance to contest the request in court.
Sessions’ deputy, Rod Rosenstein, said the review of the guidelines had just begun and it was not clear what, if anything, would be changed.
Sessions was joined in the news conference by Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence.
The two are co-chairmen of an insider threat task force first established by the Obama administration in 2011 after Chelsea Manning’s leak of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic and military files to WikiLeaks.
Coats threatened to administratively discipline people suspected of leaking, apart from any prosecution.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks Friday about unauthorized disclosures during a press conference at the Justice Department. Sessions announced the FBI had created a new counterintelligence unit to manage cases involving leaks.