Secrecy & Leaks

Leaks, Mutual Self-Restraint and Credibility

By Helen Klein Murillo
Friday, August 11, 2017, 11:24 AM

On our new Foreign Policy feed, Helen Klein Murillo examines the delicate balance struck between the government and journalists on leaks in light of Attorney General Jeff Sessions's press conference on leak investigations. The piece begins:

Last week, the Washington Post published leaked transcripts of President Donald Trump’s January phone calls with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Even with the administration beset by daily embarrassing leaks, this one was shocking, going well beyond the mere embarrassing portrayals of daily White House dysfunction. It is fair to presume that such transcripts are classified, and when asked about them, National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton said only that he “can’t confirm or deny the authenticity of allegedly leaked classified documents.”

So nobody should have been surprised that on Friday morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats held a press conference condemning the many leaks and vowing investigation and prosecution of those responsible. Sessions called for “discipline” in executive agencies and Congress to stem leaks. He indicated that since January, the Department of Justice has tripled the number of active leak investigations, and he announced a new FBI counterintelligence unit to manage them.

But then Sessions got to the press: “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’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.” Coats reiterated that the administration is “prepared to take all necessary steps to … identify individuals who illegally expose and disclose classified information.”

This marks a serious intervention in a delicate, decades-long balancing act between the federal government and professional journalists. A change in the policy about press subpoenas could have grave consequences for the government and press alike.