Message received? Two weeks after Donald Trump began publicly lambasting his Attorney General for a lack of focus on executive branch leaks (among other things), Jeff Sessions announced a new effort to plug the holes. Sessions emphasized that the effort started “months” ago, but that it will get a higher priority and public profile. “We have tripled the number of leak investigations,” Sessions told a press conference earlier today, and also announced that four people have been charged with leaking classified material, although it’s not clear when that took place:
— CBS News (@CBSNews) August 4, 2017
Sessions also announced that the Department of Justice will review its approach to media subpoenas.
AG Sessions: Gov’t reviewing media subpoena policies: “We respect the important role that the press plays…but it is not unlimited.” pic.twitter.com/uIF7iBlTSJ
— ABC News (@ABC) August 4, 2017
“We will not allow rogue anonymous sources with security clearances sell out our country,” he declared, while also noting the need for a free press for accountable government. However, Sessions added, “we must balance their role with protecting our national security and the lives of those who serve in our intelligence community, the armed forces, and all law abiding Americans.” Freedom of the press, Sessions warns, “is not unlimited. They cannot place lives at risk with impunity.”
That sounds as though the DoJ plans to press the limits on media claims of First Amendment rights to protect sources. Even if the courts end up siding with the reporters, that effort will certainly provide another disincentive to leaking. He didn’t go any further than his prepared statement, and didn’t answer questions called out at the end as to whether he plans to “prosecute reporters.” The experience of Fox News reporter James Rosen and others during the Obama administration suggests more continuity than change on that score. Will conservatives have the same concerns as they did during that period if Sessions follows that precedent? Katie Pavlich reminds everyone of the need for consistency:
Also, efforts to subpoena reporters for sources isn't going to end well for DOJ. Wrong when Obama did it, wrong now.
— Katie Pavlich (@KatiePavlich) August 4, 2017
Director of national intelligence Dan Coats also spoke at the presser, and warned people within the intel community to use the “several” legitimate channels for raising concerns, either with leadership or with Congress. However, Coats did suggest that some of the leaking may be coming from Capitol Hill, which might lead to a constitutional fight if the DoJ aggressively pursues leak probes against House and Senate members. The likeliest outcome will be reports/complaints to the ethics committees of both chambers and political pressure to take action.
The need for this press conference became acute after the leak of the transcripts of calls between Trump and other world leaders. That didn’t address “concerns” over national security; rather, it was a bald attempt at embarrassing Trump for political purposes. That precedent cannot be allowed to stand unpunished, as it erodes the office much more than its current occupant. That underscored the need for a higher priority for leak investigations, and the need to prosecute leakers strongly enough pour encourager les autres.
That’s how Sessions will make his “warning to would-be leakers” stick, and he knows it. Oh, they can think about it, but … don’t do it.