DOJ Announces Crackdown On Leaks As Intelligence Agencies' Calls For Probes Triple

Aug 4, 2017
Originally published on August 4, 2017 3:13 pm

The Justice Department has experienced an "explosion" in the number of referrals, or requests for probes, this year from intelligence agencies over the leak of classified information, prompting the attorney general to consider whether to loosen regulations on when it can subpoena media organizations.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions condemned the "staggering" number of leaks and reported that the number of active investigations into the unauthorized disclosure of national security information has tripled in 2017. He said authorities would take strong measures to stop "the culture of leaking."

"I have this message for would-be leakers," Sessions said at a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Friday, "don't do it."

The Justice Department said it was adopting a new approach after hearing complaints from career lawyers and FBI agents about the slow pace of leak probes. Authorities are evaluating how to streamline those investigations. That includes, they said, policies that require high-level approval before reporters and media companies can be compelled to turn over information.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who joined Sessions at the conference, said the department didn't know yet what, if any, changes it might make to the media policies. Rosenstein said he would meet with media representatives to discuss the ideas next week. Rosenstein declined to answer a question about whether prosecutors would rule out bringing criminal charges against reporters for doing their jobs.

Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, warned that the administration's approach to cracking down on leaks risks chilling debates about important issues in the public interest.

"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. "This administration must carefully tailor the parameters for this investigation with this important consideration in mind."

And the American Civil Liberties Union warned of the greater impact that the crackdown could have. "Every American should be concerned about the Trump administration's threat to step up its efforts against whistleblowers and journalists," said the ACLU's Ben Wizner, who works primarily on national security cases for the civil rights organization. "A crackdown on leaks is a crackdown on the free press and on democracy as a whole."

Wizner added, "Our founders understood that democracy depends on an informed citizenry, and leaders can't be trusted to disclose vital information that reflects poorly on themselves. These first months of the Trump administration dramatically illustrate that point. Can anyone seriously argue that our country would be better off if the public received all of its information through official channels alone?"

But Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who was also at Friday's event, said federal employees should report suspicions of wrongdoing within their organizations or to Congress — and not take matters into their own hands.

To members of the intelligence community who may be considering an unauthorized leak, Coats said, "Anyone who engages in these criminal acts is betraying the intelligence community and the American people."

This year, the Justice Department indicted a government contractor, Reality Winner, for allegedly leaking National Security Agency information to the Intercept, a national security website. Winner has pleaded not guilty.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

At the Justice Department today, authorities announced a crackdown on leaks of classified information. The attorney general and the director of national intelligence promised to stop the flow of national security secrets, and they signaled reporters could get caught in the crossfire. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: For months, President Trump has demanded the Justice Department do more to stop damaging leaks of government secrets. And now embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions has responded with this message.

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JEFF SESSIONS: We are taking a stand. This culture of leaking must stop.

JOHNSON: Criminal prosecutors at the Justice Department don't spend their time investigating gossip and infighting at the White House. Instead they mobilize when sensitive national security information gets disclosed. According to Jeff Sessions, that's been happening too often. The attorney general says he's tripled the number of active leak investigations this year, and he's directed U.S. attorneys to make those probes a priority.

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SESSIONS: So today I have this message for our friends in the intelligence community. The Department of Justice is open for business. And I have this warning for would-be leakers. Don't do it.

JOHNSON: Justice Department officials say career FBI agents and prosecutors have complained about how long it takes to investigate criminal leaks. So Sessions says authorities are reviewing policies about when they issue subpoenas to news organizations and how many government officials need to approve them.

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SESSIONS: We respect the important role that the press plays, and we'll give them respect. But it is not unlimited. They cannot place lives at risk with impunity. We must balance the press's 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.

BEN WIZNER: Any administration wants to exert its influence to control the flow of information to the press and the public.

JOHNSON: Ben Wizner is a lawyer at the ACLU.

WIZNER: But never in the history of the country have we had threats this blunt against reporters for doing their job.

JOHNSON: Wizner says the Justice Department has never prosecuted a reporter for publishing truthful information. But he says...

WIZNER: We shouldn't feel confident that just because reporters have never been prosecuted for publishing government secrets, that it won't happen under this administration. If we've learned anything over the last six months, it's that we can't take anything for granted.

JOHNSON: The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press says the Justice Department announcement on leaks is deeply troubling. The group points out reporters already handle sensitive information in a responsible way, even working with government officials to protect lives before they publish anything. But to the U.S. intelligence community, leaks of national security secrets have real and negative consequences. Dan Coats is director of national intelligence.

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DAN COATS: They give our adversaries knowledge of our activities. They impede our ability to share information with our allies. There is also a real cost in dollars to compensate for blown programs.

JOHNSON: Of course, Coats says, leaks sometimes spring from places no one would ever imagine.

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COATS: These national security breaches do not just originate in the intelligence community. They come from a wide range of sources within the government, including the executive branch and including the Congress.

JOHNSON: And the Trump administration may come to find out as its predecessors did that sometimes leak investigations wind up pointing at someone in the White House. Call it a case of unintended consequences. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.