AG beefs up hunt for leakers
U.S. security put at risk, he contends
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.”
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.
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.