WASHINGTON — Under pressure by President Donald Trump to stanch unauthorized disclosures of classified information to the media, Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday announced new efforts 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 Department of Justice has 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 new 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, pursuing more cases than any other administration. No journalists were prosecuted under President Barack Obama, but prosecutors subpoenaed records, secretly obtained telephone logs and pressured reporters to reveal their sources.
In 2015, then-Attorney General Eric Holder 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 are 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’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.”
That 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.
In a briefing after Sessions’ remarks, Deputy Attorney General 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 adviser, Trump’s Oval Office conversations with senior Russian officials a day after he fired FBI Director James Comey and other usually closely guarded secrets.
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.
Leaks an old problem
Every administration in modern times has complained about 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 in January undermines 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 to 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 has 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 opponent during the presidential campaign, even at one point 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, not allegations that his campaign coordinated with Russia.
In a series of angry tweets last month, Trump railed against Sessions for 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.