WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions said today that the Justice Department, in collaboration with the intelligence community, is stepping up efforts to combat leaks of national security information “both the media and, in some cases, even unauthorized disclosures to our foreign adversaries.”
Appearing for a public statement with Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, his fellow leader of the National Insider Threat Task Force established in 2011, but not taking any questions from the press, Sessions said that “referrals for investigations of classified leaks to the Department of Justice from our intelligence agencies have exploded.”
“In the first six months of this administration, the Department of Justice has already received nearly as many criminal referrals involving unauthorized disclosures of classified information as we received in the previous three years combined,” he said.
“…All of us in government can do better. The first requirement is for discipline within all our agencies of the government. To prevent these leaks, every agency and Congress has to do better. We are taking a stand. This culture of leaking must stop.”
Sessions has ordered Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and new FBI Director Christopher Wray to oversee all classified leak investigations, and ordered U.S. attorneys to prioritize such cases. The FBI also created a new counterintelligence unit to handle the workload of additional leak investigations.
“One of the things we are doing is reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas. We respect the important role that the press plays and will give them respect. But it is not unlimited. 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,” he said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists warned this could have a “chilling” effect on freedom of the press. “Independent journalism in the public interest depends on reporters’ being able to communicate privately with sources,” said Alex Ellerbeck, senior CPJ Americas and U.S. researcher. “Rolling back the limited protections on communication between journalists and their sources would lessen the public’s ability to hold their elected leaders to account and weaken hard-won standards of source protection around the world.”
The “first requirement is personal discipline” when it comes to plugging leaks, Sessions stressed. “Education and repetition within our departments and agencies will make a difference. Prevention is what is required, and investigation of a leak is too late, really. The damage is done.”
Coats emphasized that leaks “do not just originate in the intelligence community — they come from a wide range of sources within the government, including the executive branch and including the Congress.”
“Now, if someone who has accessed — to classified material has legitimate concerns, there are multiple ways for them to put forward a complaint,” he added. “The IC offers avenues for whistleblowers and protections for those individuals to report concerns without fear of reprisal. And there are other legal options available outside of those channels, including notifying the congressional intelligence committees, or even their own congressional representative or senator in Congress.”
The intel director said the National Counterintelligence and Security Center is currently reviewing policies that are in place “guiding IC agencies’ processes for investigating and reporting cases of unauthorized disclosures.”
“In addition, the NCSC is studying security clearance procedures to look for any inconsistencies in the processes for issuing security clearances to all I.C. employees, including government officials, contractors, detailees, etc.,” Coats said. “If inconsistencies are found, NCSC will make recommendations to strengthen the security clearance process, and this can be discussed, and will be discussed, after we finish our remarks. We will also continue to ensure the federal workforce is clear of the importance of respecting classifications, and is fully aware of whistleblower options. And we will work with our counterparts in the executive branch and the Congress to address this issue.”
Sessions said that since January the Justice Department “has more than tripled the number of active leak investigations compared to the number pending at the end of the last administration.”
“And we’ve already charged four people with unlawfully disclosing classified material or with concealing contacts with federal officers,” he said.