AG beefs up hunt for leak­ers

U.S. se­cu­rity put at risk, he con­tends

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Matt Za­po­to­sky and Devlin Bar­rett of The Wash­ing­ton Post; by Eric Tucker of The As­so­ci­ated Press; and by Char­lie Sav­age, Eileen Sul­li­van and Michael Gryn­baum of The New York Times.

WASH­ING­TON — At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions pledged Fri­day to rein in gov­ern­ment leaks that he said un­der­mine Amer­i­can se­cu­rity, declar­ing at a news con­fer­ence that the Jus­tice Depart­ment has more than tripled the num­ber of leak in­ves­ti­ga­tions com­pared with the num­ber that were on­go­ing at the end of the last ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has com­plained re­peat­edly about unau­tho­rized dis­clo­sures of in­for­ma­tion, cast­ing the mat­ter as more wor­thy of at­ten­tion than the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into whether his cam­paign co­or­di­nated with Rus­sia to in­flu­ence the 2016 elec­tion.

Ses­sions, too, has said that il­le­gal leaks are “ex­traor­di­nar­ily dam­ag­ing to the United States’ se­cu­rity” and has con­firmed that such

dis­clo­sures were “al­ready re­sult­ing in in­ves­ti­ga­tions.” Yet Trump wrote last week on Twit­ter that his at­tor­ney gen­eral had taken a “VERY weak po­si­tion” on “In­tel leak­ers.”

Ses­sions said Fri­day that he was de­vot­ing more re­sources to stamp­ing out leak­ers, di­rect­ing Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein and FBI Direc­tor Christo­pher Wray to ac­tively mon­i­tor ev­ery in­ves­ti­ga­tion, in­struct­ing the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Di­vi­sion and U.S. at­tor­neys to pri­or­i­tize such cases and cre­at­ing a new coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence unit in the FBI to man­age the work.

Four peo­ple have been charged over unau­tho­rized dis­clo­sures of clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion or con­ceal­ing con­tacts with for­eign of­fi­cers, he said. Only one of those in­volved a leak to the press, and one of the peo­ple was ar­rested dur­ing Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion but in­dicted re­cently.

Ses­sions also said he was re­view­ing the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s pol­icy on is­su­ing sub­poe­nas to re­porters.

“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.”

Ses­sions made the an­nounce­ment in the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s sev­enth-floor con­fer­ence room with Rosen­stein, Direc­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Daniel Coats and William Evan­ina, direc­tor of the Na­tional Coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence and Se­cu­rity Cen­ter.

Ab­sent were rep­re­sen­ta­tives for the FBI, which gen­er­ally in­ves­ti­gates leaks. Rosen­stein said that was prob­a­bly be­cause Wray had just started his job as direc­tor this week.

In the first six months of this year, Ses­sions said Fri­day, the Depart­ment of Jus­tice re­ceived nearly as many crim­i­nal re­fer­rals in­volv­ing unau­tho­rized dis­clo­sures of clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion as it had re­ceived in the past three years com­bined.

Though he did not say whether it re­sulted in a crim­i­nal re­fer­ral, Ses­sions cited in par­tic­u­lar a re­cent dis­clo­sure to The Wash­ing­ton Post of tran­scripts of Trump’s con­ver­sa­tions with Mex­i­can Pres­i­dent En­rique Pena Ni­eto and an­other with Aus­tralian Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull.

A White House ad­viser, mean­while, raised the pos­si­bil­ity of poly­graph tests for the small num­ber of peo­ple in the West Wing and else­where with ac­cess to tran­scripts of Trump’s phone calls.

Trump coun­selor Kellyanne Con­way told Fox & Friends on Fri­day that “it’s eas­ier to fig­ure out who’s leak­ing than the leak­ers may re­al­ize.” Asked if lie de­tec­tors might be used, she said, “Well, they may, they may not.”

WHISTLE­BLOWER WORRY

The Re­porters Com­mit­tee for Free­dom of the Press said it would “strongly op­pose” re­vis­ing depart­ment guide­lines on is­su­ing sub­poe­nas to re­porters.

Danielle Brian, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor at the Project On Gov­ern­ment Over­sight, warned that leak in­ves­ti­ga­tions might in­ap­pro­pri­ately tar­get well-in­ten­tioned whistle­blow­ers.

“Whistle­blow­ers are the na­tion’s first line of de­fense against fraud, waste, abuse and il­le­gal­ity within the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. The last thing this ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to do is to de­ter whistle­blow­ing in an ef­fort to stymie leaks,” Brian said.

Martin Baron, ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of The Wash­ing­ton Post, said: “Ses­sions talked about putting lives at risk. We haven’t done that.

“What we’ve done is re­veal the truth about what ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have said and done. In many in­stances, our fac­tual sto­ries have con­tra­dicted false state­ments they’ve made.”

The Post de­clined to com­ment when asked if it had been con­tacted by the gov­ern­ment about any leak in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

“There’s a dis­tinc­tion be­tween rev­e­la­tions that make the gov­ern­ment un­com­fort­able and rev­e­la­tions that put lives at risk,” said Matt Purdy, a deputy manag­ing ed­i­tor of The New York Times. “We have not pub­lished in­for­ma­tion that en­dan­gers lives.”

The Times also de­clined to com­ment about whether the gov­ern­ment had con­tacted it re­gard­ing leak in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, in re­marks Fri­day af­ter tour­ing a man­u­fac­tur­ing plant in sub­ur­ban Mil­wau­kee, agreed that leaks of clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion “can of­ten com­pro­mise na­tional se­cu­rity,” but added that jour­nal­ists aren’t the prob­lem.

He said the prob­lem lies with “the leaker, not the jour­nal­ist.”

Leak cases are dif­fi­cult to prove and pros­e­cute, and they al­most al­ways come with po­lit­i­cal con­tro­versy — es­pe­cially when the leaks in­volve pro­vid­ing in­for­ma­tion to re­porters that is ar­guably in the pub­lic in­ter­est.

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric Holder is­sued new guide­lines in 2015 to the depart­ment’s pol­icy on ob­tain­ing in­for­ma­tion from mem­bers of the news me­dia, af­ter his Jus­tice Depart­ment came un­der fire for the tac­tics pros­e­cu­tors used in fil­ing such cases.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion had taken an es­pe­cially ag­gres­sive stance on leaks. Pros­e­cu­tors in the Obama era lodged nine such cases, more than dur­ing all pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions com­bined, and in the process, called a re­porter a crim­i­nal “co-con­spir­a­tor” and se­cretly went af­ter re­porters’ phone records in a bid to iden­tify re­porters’ sources. Pros­e­cu­tors in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion also sought to com­pel a re­porter to tes­tify and iden­tify a source, though they ul­ti­mately backed down from that ef­fort.

At a brief­ing af­ter the news con­fer­ence, Rosen­stein de­clined to say whether the Jus­tice Depart­ment might de­cide to pros­e­cute jour­nal­ists for re­port­ing on clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion.

Rosen­stein said that part of the ex­panded ef­fort to fight leaks in­cludes a top-to­bot­tom re-eval­u­a­tion of the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s rules for how it in­ves­ti­gates dis­clo­sures of clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion.

It has long been Jus­tice Depart­ment prac­tice in leak in­ves­ti­ga­tions to try to avoid in­ves­ti­gat­ing jour­nal­ists di­rectly to find their sources. In­stead, the pol­icy has been for in­ves­ti­ga­tors to first fo­cus on gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees.

In some cases, when the scru­tiny of gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees has been ex­hausted, se­nior Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cials may au­tho­rize an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of jour­nal­ists, pos­si­bly by ex­am­in­ing their phone records.

As a re­sult, leak in­ves­ti­ga­tions of­ten are slow-mov­ing, and many never lead to any charges. Within the FBI and the Jus­tice Depart­ment, agents and pros­e­cu­tors who han­dle leak cases have long ar­gued that if they could in­ves­ti­gate jour­nal­ists ear­lier and more ag­gres­sively, they could be more suc­cess­ful in pros­e­cut­ing leak cases.

“We are re­view­ing the en­tire process of how we con­duct me­dia leak in­ves­ti­ga­tions by re­spond­ing to is­sues that have been raised by our ca­reer pros­e­cu­tors and agents,” Rosen­stein said. “We’re tak­ing ba­si­cally a fresh look at it … We don’t know yet what if any changes we want to make, but we are tak­ing a fresh look.”

Ses­sions said the Jus­tice Depart­ment must “bal­ance the press’ role with pro­tect­ing our na­tional se­cu­rity and the lives of those who serve in the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity, the armed ser­vices and all law-abid­ing Amer­i­cans.”

ONE CASE WITH ME­DIA LINK

So far, the Jus­tice Depart­ment un­der Ses­sions has pub­licly an­nounced charges in just one leak case in­volv­ing the me­dia.

Re­al­ity Leigh Win­ner, a 25-year-old gov­ern­ment con­trac­tor, was ac­cused in June of mis­han­dling clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion af­ter, au­thor­i­ties said, she gave a top-se­cret Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency doc­u­ment to a news or­ga­ni­za­tion.

A Jus­tice Depart­ment spokesman said that when Ses­sions men­tioned four peo­ple who had been charged, he was re­fer­ring to Win­ner; Can­dace Marie Clai­borne, a State Depart­ment em­ployee ac­cused of con­ceal­ing her con­tacts with for­eign in­tel­li­gence agents; Kevin Pa­trick Mal­lory, a for­mer CIA of­fi­cer ac­cused of sell­ing in­for­ma­tion to China; and Harold Martin, a fed­eral con­trac­tor sus­pected of steal­ing a large amount of clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion.

Martin was ar­rested dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, though he was in­dicted in Fe­bru­ary.

Trump’s pres­i­dency has been dogged by a steady stream of in­for­ma­tion pro­vided to re­porters by anony­mous sources, though not all of those have in­volved clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion and many of the dis­clo­sures, ex­perts say, were un­likely il­le­gal.

For ex­am­ple, Trump has com­plained that for­mer FBI direc­tor James Comey’s de­ci­sion to en­gi­neer a leak of in­for­ma­tion about a con­ver­sa­tion he had with the pres­i­dent was “il­le­gal,” when le­gal an­a­lysts say that is not likely the case.

Comey has con­ceded pub­licly that he told a friend to give a re­porter in­for­ma­tion about his rec­ol­lec­tion of the pres­i­dent’s re­quest that he shut down the bu­reau’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn. But he said he did not share clas­si­fied ma­te­rial.

Pros­e­cu­tors who file charges against peo­ple for shar­ing in­for­ma­tion with the pub­lic can do so only when clas­si­fied or other na­tional se­cu­rity ma­te­rial is at is­sue. Ma­te­rial can­not be clas­si­fied to con­ceal le­gal vi­o­la­tions or pre­vent em­bar­rass­ment, ac­cord­ing to an ex­ec­u­tive or­der from Obama.

In May, Trump him­self dis­closed sen­si­tive in­tel­li­gence to vis­it­ing Rus­sian of­fi­cials about an Is­lamic State plot, blurt­ing out de­tails that had been shared by Is­rael — a dis­clo­sure that some in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials wor­ried might have ex­posed an im­por­tant Is­raeli gov­ern­ment source. But pres­i­dents have the author­ity to de­clas­sify and dis­close in­for­ma­tion at their dis­cre­tion.

Once rare, leak cases have be­come far more com­mon in the 21st cen­tury, in part be­cause of elec­tronic trails that make it eas­ier for in­ves­ti­ga­tors to de­ter­mine who had ac­cess to a leaked doc­u­ment and was in con­tact with a re­porter. In early 2006, af­ter The New York Times re­vealed the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency pro­gram in which surveil­lance does not re­quire war­rants, Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’s ad­min­is­tra­tion cre­ated a ded­i­cated task force to go af­ter high-level leaks.

AP/AN­DREW HARNIK

In ad­di­tion to an­nounc­ing a crack­down on “ex­traor­di­nar­ily dam­ag­ing” il­le­gal leaks, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions said Fri­day that he was re­view­ing the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s pol­icy on is­su­ing sub­poe­nas to re­porters.

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