Some of the Trump administration’s tactics in its self-serving war on the press are impossible to avoid: the president’s endless Twitter tantrums about the “failing” New York Times and “fake news” CNN; diatribes about media outlets’ supposed dishonesty; his casual chuckle at the murderous Philippine president’s joke that journalists are spies. But the contrived conflict also extends out to the public eye, where the Department of Justice can quietly crack down on government employees who leak classified information to journalists. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday that he’s pursuing them at a furious clip.
Speaking before a House Oversight Committee hearing, Sessions described leaks as an “epidemic.” While “we had nine open investigations of classified leaks in the past three years,” he said, presumably referring to the Obama administration, the DOJ has 27 open today.
“We intend to get to the bottom of these leaks,” Sessions added. “It cannot be allowed to continue and we will do our best effort to make sure that it does not continue.”
Sessions is referring to leaks of classified information, like national security documents, as opposed to the “leaks” that consistently drip from the White House into many anonymously sourced news reports. Trump and his aides rail against the latter, which have exposed internal dysfunction and backstabbing since Day 1 of the administration. The former—the leaks that Sessions’ DOJ is purportedly running down—can lead to criminal prosecution under the Espionage Act.
Twenty-seven such investigations would signal a massive escalation in the government’s attempt to silence those who dare share its secrets. As The Washington Post reported in June, just 13 people have ever been prosecuted under the Espionage Act—eight of them during the Obama administration. While the Obama Justice Department set a scary precedent in this regard, Sessions suggested on Tuesday that Trump’s anti-media crusade is of a different order of magnitude.
The attorney general has—how do I put this—bent the truth in congressional testimony before. It is possible that the 27 cases to which he referred are “investigations” in a very loose sense of the term. So far, the Trump Administration has only prosecuted a single person, former National Security Agency contractor Reality Winner, after she allegedly provided classified information to The Intercept. We may not know much more about subsequent efforts unless the government issues subpoenas or search warrants, or if details of a specific investigation were to…leak to the press.
By sharing such information publicly, though, Sessions is sending a message to three constituencies. To the White House: that the Justice Department is pursuing Trump’s war on the press with the same vigor the president does from his Twitter app. To journalists: that they could be ensnared in legal action should they report on classified information, such as the progress of the FBI investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election. And to potential sources: that they better think twice. Even if Sessions is full of hot air in the figure he’s providing, the end effect remains chilling.