Jeff Ses­sions’ war on leaks

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

In­sist­ing that a “cul­ture of leak­ing” in the fed­eral gov­ern­ment must stop, Atty. Gen. Jeff Ses­sions on Fri­day said that the Trump Jus­tice De­part­ment had more than tripled the num­ber of leak in­ves­ti­ga­tions it was con­duct­ing since the end of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. That’s a strik­ing in­crease, con­sid­er­ing that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion also zeal­ously went af­ter leak­ers.

Cyn­ics will see Ses­sions’ state­ment as a cave-in to complaints by Pres­i­dent Trump that his at­tor­ney gen­eral hasn’t been tough enough on leaks, but we don’t doubt Ses­sions’ sin­cer­ity. Al­though leaks can help pro­tect the pub­lic against de­cep­tion and abuses of au­thor­ity, they also can pose real prob­lems for the gov­ern­ment, even when they don’t com­pro­mise na­tional se­cu­rity.

We are alarmed, how­ever, by Ses­sions’ sug­ges­tion that, in in­ves­ti­gat­ing leaks, he might be will­ing to re­lax Jus­tice De­part­ment re­stric­tions on seek­ing in­for­ma­tion from re­porters. The at­tor­ney gen­eral said that, at the sug­ges­tion of ca­reer in­ves­ti­ga­tors and pros­e­cu­tors, he and his staff were re­view­ing poli­cies af­fect­ing sub­poe­nas of mem­bers of the news me­dia.

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

Ses­sions seems to have mis­read the de­part­ment’s cur­rent guide­lines. As re­vised by for­mer Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. in 2015, they’re de­signed not to sub­or­di­nate na­tional se­cu­rity or law en­force­ment to the fourth es­tate’s hunger for scoops. In­stead, they seek to strike a bal­ance be­tween se­cu­rity in­ter­ests and the pub­lic’s need for a free press that holds gov­ern­ment ac­count­able.

They do so by al­low­ing fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors to sub­poena news or­ga­ni­za­tions for in­for­ma­tion only “af­ter all rea­son­able al­ter­na­tive at­tempts have been made to ob­tain the in­for­ma­tion from al­ter­na­tive sources” and only with the per­mis­sion of a se­nior de­part­ment of­fi­cial. Sen­si­bly, the guide­lines say that sub­poe­nas and search war­rants di­rected at the news me­dia should be “ex­tra­or­di­nary mea­sures, not stan­dard in­ves­ti­ga­tory prac­tices.” If Ses­sions has any ev­i­dence that ad­her­ing to these guide­lines has jeop­ar­dized the lives of FBI agents, in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers or U.S. troops, he should of­fer it.

It might sound like spe­cial plead­ing for a news­pa­per ed­i­to­rial page to de­fend ar­range­ments that pro­tect our pro­fes­sion. But so­ci­ety as a whole benefits when the press is pro­tected from be­ing ca­su­ally con­scripted by gov­ern­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tors. In seek­ing to pre­vent leaks, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion should fo­cus on keep­ing its own house in order.

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