- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2017

The Justice Department has tripled the number of active leak investigations and dedicated new resources to battling unauthorized disclosures of classified information, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Friday.

Efforts to address the “staggering number of leaks” include a new unit at the Federal Bureau of Investigation dedicated to overseeing leak probes as well as a review of the DOJ’s current policies affecting subpoenas of the media, the attorney general said.

“We are taking a stand. This culture of leaking must stop,” said Mr. Sessions, speaking from the Justice Department.

The announcement comes as the Trump administration has struggled to deal with a flood of problematic leaks, ranging from the disclosure of a classified National Security Agency document by a federal contractor to this week’s leak of entire classified transcripts of Mr. Trump’s phone conversations with his counterparts in Australia and Mexico.

Mr. Sessions addressed both intelligence community members and would-be leakers.

“I have this message for the intelligence community: The Department of Justice is open for business,” he said. “And I have this warning for would-be leakers: Don’t do it.”

Without providing statistics, Mr. Sessions said the number of criminal referrals for investigations of classified leaks that the Justice Department has received from intelligence agencies in the first six months of the Trump administration is equal to the number of referrals the department received during the prior three years combined.

According to Justice Department documents obtained by Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy specialist with the Federation of American Scientists, the Justice Department received 37 “crimes reports” concerning unauthorized disclosures of classified information in 2016.

From 2009 through 2016 the Justice Department received an average of 39 such reports — a high of 55 in 2013 and a low of 18 in 2015, according to the data he received through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The number of leak cases prosecuted has historically been much lower. The Obama administration brought more leak cases — at least eight prosecutions — than all predecessors combined.

But the formation of a new investigative team to focus solely on leaks appears poised to change that.

The attorney general has put his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, and newly confirmed FBI Director Christopher Wray in charge of the leak probes.

A new FBI counterintelligence unit, headed by a supervisor with experience in media leaks, has been formed to specifically to handle the onslaught of active cases.

Mr. Rosenstein said he also intends to take a “fresh look” at policies on the books when it comes to investigators interactions with reporters as they pursue leakers. He said Friday that he doesn’t know “what if any changes we will make” but he declined to provide a definitive answer when asked whether prosecuting reporters would be off the table.

Under President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder vowed not to jail journalists. In 2015, after a dust-up with the press over the subpoena of reporters’ phone records, the Justice Department also drafted guidelines that made it more difficult to pursue such records and required high-level approval within the department.

First Amendment advocates reacted with alarm to the possible alteration of those guidelines, with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press calling the review “deeply troubling.”

“The current guidelines reflect a great deal of good-faith discussion between the news media and a wide range of interests from within the Department of Justice, including career prosecutors and key nonpolitical personnel,” said Reporters Committee Chairman David Boardman.

“They carefully balance the need to enforce the law and protect national security with the value of a free press that can hold the government accountable to the people.”

The Freedom of the Press Foundation called the attorney general’s intent to review and possible change the policies “a dangerous escalation of the administration’s war against the press.”

“The Department of Justice is explicitly threatening to haul journalists before grand juries and force them to testify about their confidential sources or face jail time,” the foundation said in a statement issued Friday.

“Sessions’ comments seem intended to have a chilling effect on journalism, by making reporters and their sources think twice before publishing information that the government does not like.”

The Justice Department’s approach to curtailing leaks will not be just about finding and punishing leakers.

“The investigation of a leak is too late really, the damage has already been done,” Mr. Sessions said.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said part of the government’s strategy in preventing leaks will be a reevaluation of security clearance procedures and efforts to educate government employees about the proper internal channels to air concerns.

“These national security breaches do not just originate in the intelligence community, they also come from aside range of sources within the government, including the executive branch and including Congress,” Mr. Coats said. “Now if someone, who has access to classified material, has legitimate concerns there are multiple ways for them to put forward a complaint. The IC officers avenues for whistleblowers and protection for those individual to report those concerns without without fear of reprisal.”

Mr. Rosenstein couldn’t say whether there is any indication that complaints through authorized channels are also on the rise. But he said said better educating government employees about those options could potentially help stem unauthorized leaks.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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