By Jonathan Easley - 08-04-17 11:32 AM EDT
Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday announced a government-wide crackdown on leakers, which will include a review of the Justice Department's policies on subpoenas for media outlets that publish sensitive information.
At a press conference with Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Sessions announced that the Justice Department, FBI and government intelligence agencies will direct more resources into the investigations of government leaks and would prioritize prosecuting those that pass sensitive information along to the press or foreign officials.
Sessions said he had empowered his deputy director Rod Rosenstein and incoming FBI director Christopher Wray to oversee the classified leaks investigations and to monitor the progress of each case.
The national security division of the Justice Department will prioritize cases involving unauthorized disclosures, Sessions said, and the departments "will not hesitate to bring lawful and appropriate criminal charges against those who abuse the public trust."
Sessions said his Justice Department has already tripled the number of active leak investigations over the previous administration, and that the FBI would create a new counterintelligence unit to manage the cases.
In addition, Sessions said that after meeting with FBI and intelligence investigators, the Justice Department would review its policies affecting media subpoenas.
"We respect the important role the press plays and we'll give them respect, but it's not unlimited," Sessions said. "They cannot place lives at risk with impunity. We must balance the press' 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."
President Trump has been pushing Sessions to be more aggressive in prosecuting illegal government leaks, which have bedeviled the administration from the start.
There have been a torrent of government leaks since Trump took office, leading to accusations from the right that rogue "deep state" actors are conducting a silent "coup" against the president.
Sessions said there had been "dramatic growth" in the number of unauthorized disclosures since Trump had taken office and that his office had seen an "explosion" of referrals for potential investigations.
The attorney general would not give details about specific investigations, but said four individuals had already been charged with the unlawful release of sensitive government information.
"I have this message for our friends in the intelligence community: The Justice Department is open for business," Sessions said. "And I have this warning for potential leakers: Don't do it."
Coats, the director of national intelligence, sent a direct message to leakers, would-be leakers and the media outlets that have printed sensitive information.
"If you improperly disclose classified information, we will find you, we will investigate you and we will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law," Coats said. "You will not be happy with the result."
The details of the myriad probes into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, currently underway in the House, Senate, at the FBI and through the special counsel, have consistently found their way into the press through anonymous sources.
The flow of leaks has frustrated the White House, which has been dealing with the cloud of investigation since before the president's inauguration.
Coats noted that not all of the leaks originate from the intelligence community, saying that they also come from the Executive Branch and Congress and that his office would not discriminate in its pursuit of those that break the law.
"Any disclosure outside of authorized channels is a criminal offense and we will simply not tolerate the illegal release of classified information," Coats said.
Some of the leaked stories have proven to be untrue, giving the Trump administration political ammunition in its attacks against the press. Many of the stories have been attributed to former administration officials, which has raised suspicions on the right that they are coming from holdovers from former President Obama's government.
Earlier this year, Trump fired his national security adviser Michael Flynn after his name was unmasked in a surveillance report that detailed his conversation with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Trump's feud with former FBI director James Comey also spilled into the press after Comey passed personal memos detailing his encounters with Trump along to a friend.
Comey later testified that he orchestrated the leaks to ensure that a special investigator was put in charge of the Russia investigation. In the eyes of many on the right, those actions have tainted special counselor Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election meddling.
And details of Trump's Oval Office conversations with world leaders have also made their way into the press.
That came to a head this week when the full transcripts of Trump's phone calls with foreign leaders were leaked to The Washington Post.
Many in the media and on the left have celebrated the leaks, which have consistently embarrassed the president or caused new political problems for him.
But the printed Oval Office transcripts went too far for some Democrats, who warned that the release of the president's private conversations with foreign leaders undermines national security.
"This is beyond the pale and will have a chilling effect going forward on the ability of the commander in chief to have candid discussions with his counterparts," Ned Price, a former National Security Council official under President Barack Obama, told The Hill.
"Granted, the White House contributed to this atmosphere by welcoming the free-for-all environment, where anonymous leaks are commonplace. But we must draw the line somewhere."
Sessions on Friday said that "no government can be effective when its leaders cannot discuss freely with foreign leaders."