Crack­down an­nounced on ‘cul­ture of leak­ing’

Af­ter harsh crit­i­cism from Trump, Ses­sions says there’s a new push for prose­cu­tions.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Joseph Tan­fani

WASH­ING­TON — Un­der pres­sure from Pres­i­dent Trump to stanch unau­tho­rized dis­clo­sures of clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion to the me­dia, Atty. Gen. Jeff Ses­sions an­nounced new ef­forts Fri­day to find and pros­e­cute those re­spon­si­ble for what he called an “un­prece­dented rise in leaks,” and threat­ened a more ag­gres­sive stance to­ward jour­nal­ists.

Ses­sions re­vealed no new cases, but said the Jus­tice Depart­ment had tripled the num­ber of leak in­ves­ti­ga­tions this year. The pace is so heavy, he said, that the FBI has in­creased re­sources for leak cases and has cre­ated a coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence squad to man­age them.

He also said he was re­con­sid­er­ing poli­cies put in place dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion that lim­ited the in­for­ma­tion pros­e­cu­tors could de­mand from re­porters.

“We are tak­ing a stand,” he said. “This cul­ture of leak­ing must stop.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion was ag­gres­sive in pur­su­ing cases against gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials who re­vealed se­crets to jour­nal­ists, tak­ing on more than any other ad­min­is­tra­tion. No jour­nal­ists were pros­e­cuted un­der Pres­i­dent Obama, but pros­e­cu­tors sub­poe­naed records, se­cretly ob­tained tele­phone logs and pres­sured re­porters to re­veal their sources.

In 2015, then-Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. an­nounced that some of the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s ef­forts aimed at re­porters had gone too far. He changed pol­icy to make it more dif­fi­cult for pros­e­cu­tors to go af­ter jour­nal­ists’ records.

Ses­sions said those poli­cies were now un­der re­view, at what he said was the sug­ges­tion of FBI agents and pros­e­cu­tors.

“We re­spect the im­por­tant role that the press plays, and we’ll give them re­spect, but it is not un­lim­ited,” Ses­sions said. “They can­not place lives at risk with im­punity. We must bal­ance the press’ role with pro­tect­ing our na­tional se­cu­rity and the lives of those who serve in the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity, the armed forces and all law-abid­ing Amer­i­cans.”

The an­nounce­ment drew quick crit­i­cism from me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions, which said the ad­min­is­tra­tion was try­ing to use the law to stop re­porters from do­ing their jobs.

“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,” said David Board­man, chair­man of the Re­porters Com­mit­tee for Free­dom of the Press.

“Ev­ery Amer­i­can should be con­cerned about the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s threat to step up its ef­forts against whis­tle-blow­ers and jour­nal­ists,” the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union said in a state­ment.

In a brief­ing af­ter Ses­sions’ re­marks, Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod J. Rosen­stein said the depart­ment would con­sult with news or­ga­ni­za­tions dur­ing the re­view, which he said was just be­gin­ning. Ses­sions said Rosen­stein would over­see all leak in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Rosen­stein de­clined to say whether the ad­min­is­tra­tion would con­sider pros­e­cut­ing jour­nal­ists, say­ing he would not “com­ment on hy­po­thet­i­cals.”

Since Trump took of­fice, news or­ga­ni­za­tions have re­vealed a se­cret for­eign in­tel­li­gence war­rant re­gard­ing a Trump ad­vi­sor, Trump’s Oval Of­fice con­ver­sa­tions with se­nior Rus­sian of­fi­cials a day af­ter he fired FBI Direc­tor James B. Comey, and other se­crets that would usu­ally be closely guarded.

In the lat­est em­bar­rass­ment for Trump, the Wash­ing­ton Post pub­lished tran­scripts Thurs­day of his rocky post-in­au­gu­ra­tion tele­phone con­ver­sa­tions with the lead­ers of Mex­ico and Aus­tralia.

Although those dis­clo­sures have po­lit­i­cally em­bar­rassed Trump, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have not claimed that any “place lives at risk,” as Ses­sions put it.

Ev­ery ad­min­is­tra­tion in mod­ern times has com­plained about unau­tho­rized leaks to the me­dia, with the Pen­tagon Pa­pers case reach­ing the Supreme Court af­ter the Nixon White House tried — and failed — to block their pub­li­ca­tion.

But Ses­sions said the “stag­ger­ing num­ber of leaks” since Trump took of­fice had un­der­mined the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s abil­ity to pro­tect the coun­try.

“No one is en­ti­tled to sur­rep­ti­tiously fight their bat­tles in the me­dia by re­veal­ing sen­si­tive gov­ern­ment in­for­ma­tion,” he said. “No gov­ern­ment can be ef­fec­tive when its leader can­not dis­cuss sen­si­tive mat­ters in con­fi­dence or ... talk freely in con­fi­dence with for­eign lead­ers.”

Ses­sions added a pointed warn­ing about leaks from within Amer­ica’s spy ser­vices, not­ing that the Jus­tice Depart­ment had charged four peo­ple with un­law­fully dis­clos­ing clas­si­fied ma­te­rial or with con­ceal­ing con­tacts with for­eign in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers.

“I have this mes­sage for our friends in the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity: The Depart­ment of Jus­tice is open for busi­ness,” he said.

Dan Coats, the direc­tor of na­tional in­tel­li­gence, promised to help with the crack­down.

“Any­one who en­gages in th­ese crim­i­nal acts is be­tray­ing the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity and the Amer­i­can peo­ple,” he said.

Trump was a fan of leaks against his Demo­cratic op­po­nent dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, at one point even pub­licly en­cour­ag­ing Rus­sian hack­ers to try to ob­tain Hil­lary Clin­ton’s emails.

But since the in­au­gu­ra­tion, Trump has fre­quently raged about unau­tho­rized dis­clo­sures and has said the Jus­tice Depart­ment should be in­ves­ti­gat­ing the leaks as op­posed to the al­le­ga­tions that his cam­paign co­or­di­nated with Rus­sia.

In a se­ries of an­gry tweets last month, Trump railed against Ses­sions as be­ing “VERY weak” for fail­ing to pros­e­cute leak­ers. Asked in a Rose Gar­den cer­e­mony whether Ses­sions should stay in his job, Trump said he wanted Ses­sions to be “much tougher” on leaks.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion also promised a crack­down in May af­ter the dis­clo­sure of de­tails of the bomb used in a ter­ror­ist at­tack in Manch­ester, Eng­land, drew com­plaints from British Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May.

One of the main laws used to pros­e­cute leak cases is the broadly writ­ten Es­pi­onage Act, dat­ing from World War I, which makes it a crime to re­veal in­for­ma­tion that the per­son mak­ing the dis­clo­sure “has rea­son to be­lieve could be used” to in­jure the United States or help an­other na­tion.

Heidi Kitrosser, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota Law School, said the law is broad, and far too many records are clas­si­fied as se­cret, giv­ing pros­e­cu­tors the abil­ity to tar­get peo­ple who re­veal wrong­do­ing.

“It be­comes very easy for pros­e­cu­tors to pick and choose to go af­ter cer­tain leak­ers, not be­cause the in­for­ma­tion is dan­ger­ous, but be­cause they want to send a mes­sage,” she said.

There al­ready has been one ar­rest of a leaker re­lated to the cur­rent in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Rus­sian ef­forts to sway the 2016 elec­tion.

In June, Re­al­ity Leigh Win­ner, a con­tract in­tel­li­gence agency em­ployee from Au­gusta, Ga., was ar­rested af­ter she ad­mit­ted she gave the In­ter­cept, an on­line news or­ga­ni­za­tion, a copy of a Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency anal­y­sis that con­cluded Rus­sian hack­ers had pen­e­trated an Amer­i­can voter tech­nol­ogy firm.

One of the last leak cases in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion was han­dled di­rectly by Rosen­stein, now the No. 2 of­fi­cial at the Jus­tice Depart­ment.

While still a U.S. at­tor­ney in Mary­land, Rosen­stein was ap­pointed to in­ves­ti­gate Gen. James E. Cartwright, for­mer vice chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for giv­ing jour­nal­ists clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion about Iran. Rosen­stein said the in­quiry in­volved col­lect­ing “tens of thou­sands of doc­u­ments” and in­ter­view­ing “scores” of of­fi­cials. Cartwright pleaded guilty to ly­ing to FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tors; Obama later par­doned him.

An­drew Harnik As­so­ci­ated Press

“WE RE­SPECT the im­por­tant role that the press plays ... but it is not un­lim­ited,” Atty. Gen. Jeff Ses­sions said at a news con­fer­ence. Pres­i­dent Trump has crit­i­cized Ses­sions as be­ing “VERY weak” on go­ing af­ter leak­ers.

Mark J. Ter­rill As­so­ci­ated Press

THEN-ATTY. GEN. Eric H. Holder Jr. made it harder in 2015 to go af­ter jour­nal­ists’ records.

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