The Trump administration’s promised crackdown against leaks has the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee demanding answers from the Justice Department about the government’s rules for investigating reporters covering unauthorized disclosures.
Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, sent a two-page letter Tuesday to Attorney General Jeff Sessions seeking information on the Justice Department’s “use of surveillance powers to target journalist and news organizations as part of leak investigations,” according to a copy of published on the lawmaker’s website.
The senator asked Mr. Sessions for the precise number of times the Justice Department has used investigative tools including subpoenas, search warrants and national security letters to obtain either communications records, geo-location data or content for journalists during the last five years, as well as any possible changes to the internal procedures governing those probes put in place since President Trump took office, according to the letter.
The Justice Department did not immediately return an email seeking comment Tuesday.
Federal investigators came under fire for investigating journalists during the Obama administration after it was revealed in 2013 that the Justice Department secretly obtained telephone records for several Associated Press journalists in an effort to identify one of their sources.
The Justice Department subsequently adopted news rules in 2015 requiring the attorney general to personally approve any subpoenas or similar court orders seeking the communications of members of the news media, but Mr. Wyden wants to know if the Trump administration has implemented any changes of its own, particularly after Mr. Sessions recently vowed to lock up leakers amid a steady stream of unauthorized disclosures consistently embarrassing the White House.
“Although federal law currently permits the government to obtain historical telephone and email records without demonstrating probable cause to a judge, DOJ can and should go above and beyond what is required by statute when investigating journalists,” Mr. Wyden wrote. “I urge you to expand the protections in the 2015 regulations to further require that, absent an imminent threat to Americans’ safety, executive branch personnel not seek a journalist’s phone or email records in order to identify the source of a leak to that journalist without a search warrant.
“Any further revisions to DOJ’s procedure must strengthen, not compromise these essential protections. Moreover, DOJ’s power to investigate members of the media should be subjected to close scrutiny by Congress and the American people,” he added.
Mr. Wyden has asked for the Justice Department to provide answers to his questions by Nov. 10.
A report published in July by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee concluded that Mr. Trump has endured “an unprecedented wave of potentially damaging leaks of information that threaten national security” at the pace of about one leak per day.
Mr. Sessions said the following month that the DOJ plans to ramp up its existing leak probes while reviewing its policies for conducting investigations into journalist and their sources.