Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed the issue of “unauthorized disclosures of national security information” in a Friday press briefing at the Department of Justice (DOJ). And it seems he’s quite serious about this. Without mentioning the specifics of any ongoing investigations, Sessions described a staggering increase in unauthorized disclosures to both the media and foreign agencies. He also spoke about the Department of Justice’s efforts to expedite a larger number of criminal investigations of government employees who leak sensitive information. In particular, he put both the intelligence community and the media on notice that the oozing of information must stop and those responsible exposed.
The Attorney General announced that four people have already been charged with “unlawfully disclosing classified material or with concealing contacts with federal officers.”
Sessions wasted no time in pointing to the latest disclosure of sensitive information to the media. On Thursday, The Washington Post published transcripts of phone conversations between President Donald Trump and two foreign leaders; Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Enrique Pena Nieto, Mexico’s president.
No-one is entitled to surreptitiously fight to advance battles in the media by revealing sensitive government information. No government can be effective when its leaders cannot discuss sensitive matters in confidence or talk freely, in confidence, with foreign leaders.
According to Sessions, the instances of unauthorized disclosures have “exploded” since Trump took office. The number of referrals for investigation received by the DOJ from the intelligence community, within the first six months of the Trump administration, has almost equaled the total number of referrals over the previous three years. “To prevent these leaks,” Sessions said, “every [government] agency – and Congress – has to do better.”
The main burden of mitigating information leaks from government agencies falls to the National Insider Threat Task Force. Created in 2011 by Executive Order, the NITTF, under the joint leadership of the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence, is responsible for assisting government departments and agencies in establishing “insider threat detection and prevention programs.”
The DOJ chief did not mince words, saying “So today, I have this message for our friends in the intelligence community. The Department of Justice is open for business…”
It remains to be seen what, if any, action the DOJ will take against several officials – from the administration of former President Barack Obama – who have been implicated in the ‘unmasking’ of Trump associates. The identities of American citizens caught up in surveillance operations against foreign agents are supposed to remain concealed – or ‘masked’ – except when those individuals are of significant national security concern. Over the past weeks, a growing amount of evidence suggests that the previous administration deliberately sought to unmask numerous American citizens without sufficient justification.
Sessions announced three steps he has taken to expedite the investigations of leaks. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and new FBI Director Christopher Wray have been directed to oversee all leak investigations. The DOJ’s National Security Division and United States attorneys will be prioritizing such cases. Lastly, The DOJ has increased the number of investigations with the aid of a new Counter Intelligence Unit at the FBI.
Before wrapping up, Sessions addressed the media. He announced that his department was “reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas.”
We respect the important role that the press plays and we’ll give them respect, but it is not unlimited. They cannot place lives at risk with impunity. We must balance the press’s 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 had previously criticized Session for not being tough enough on those who leak sensitive information. That criticism led to speculation that the Attorney General would be replaced. Sessions’ press briefing may have put that speculation to rest. It remains to be seen how quickly it will affect the serious issues this administration and White House face, in regards to leaked information and media indiscretion.