National Security

Government to Crack Down on Leakers, Main Stream Media in its Sights

“If you improperly disclose classified information, we will find you, we will investigate you and we will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law. You will not be happy with the result.”

The Trump Administration and Department of Justice are set to go after leakers far more aggressively than previous administrations. Officials are being empowered to move more aggressively to clamp down on leaks, and the main stream media may now find itself the target of legal cases. Previously, journalists and members of the media have generally been spared from prosecution when publishing classified information. If President Trump has his way, that won’t be the case any longer.

Few things have riled the Trump administration up more than leakers. During his week-and-a-half stint as Director of Communications, Anthony Scaramucci lashed out at potential leakers left and right — his outbursts likely cost him his job. But this isn’t to say that President Trump doesn’t share similar sentiments. Trump has likewise blasted leakers within his administration, and insiders hint that the issue is causing the President a lot of grief.

Now, National Intelligence Director Daniel Coats has warned would-be leakers that “if you improperly disclose classified information, we will find you, we will investigate you and we will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law. You will not be happy with the result.”

Meanwhile, Attorney Jeff Sessions unveiled a plan to launch government-wide crackdowns. Going forward, the government is going to allocate more resources to finding and pursuing leakers. At the Justice Department, the National Security division will prioritize investigations and legal cases involving government leaks. Priority will be given to legal cases against those who pass information along to foreign governments or the media.

Meanwhile, DoJ deputy director Rod Rosenstein, as well as incoming FBI director Christopher Wray, have both been empowered to aggressively pursue investigations and actions against leakers. Sessions himself has said he “will not hesitate to bring lawful and appropriate criminal charges against those who abuse the public trust.”

Past administrations have been plagued by leakers. Both the Bush and Obama administrations were beset by frequent leaks, but generally accepted them as a cost of doing business. The government tended to focus on “big” leaks, such as Chelsea Manning, a former army soldier who leaked a treasure trove of sensitive data to the media and public. It looks like the Trump administration is going to take a different approach.

There’s just one problem: the administration and Department of Justice may be limited by the Constitution. While President Trump has claimed that leaks constitute a “criminal act”, some protections are provided by various government regulations, as well as the Constitution’s emphasis on free speech. The media has also been shielded, quite extensively, from prosecution. It’s unclear how much action can be taken against media outlets, but the DoJ is threatening to use subpoenas against media organizations and journalists.

While persecutions regarding people who pass along classified information is quite straightforward, there are many gray areas. The Trump White House has been a hot source of gossip as the media frequently digs up and publishes gossip about the many tensions, rivalries, and on-going issues within the West Wing.  Who’s having dinner with who, and who doesn’t get along with who, among many other gossip topics, have been hot news.

Trump has not taken to these leaks kindly, but it’s unclear how the administration can clamp down on such gossip. The easiest recourse is to simply fire people with “loose lips”, as legal cases may be difficult to build. The government does have numerous laws in place that prohibit leaking information, but these laws focus primarily on sensitive and classified information

It’ll be especially difficult to crack down on the media itself, even when classified information is involved, which is one of the primary targets of the Trump administration’s expanded efforts. While prosecuting leakers is somewhat straightforward, going after the media is more difficult. Very few journalists throughout U.S. history have ever been prosecuted for publishing information, even when it was classified. Under the Trump administration, this may change.

Brian Brinker

Brian Brinker is an OpsLens Contributor and political consultant. Brinker has an M.A in Global Affairs from American University.

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