Under intense pressure from the White House, the Justice Department is prepared to aggressively prosecute government officials who leak classified information. Justice Department officials told The Daily Beast that targeting leakers will be a priority during Jeff Sessions’ time as attorney general—a posture that will hearten national security hawks, while concerning advocates of whistleblower protections.
“As the Attorney General has said, the Department of Justice takes unlawful leaks very seriously and those that engage in such activity should be held accountable,” an official told The Daily Beast.
On Monday afternoon, the Washington Post broke the news that Trump shared classified information about ISIS with Russian officials. And on Tuesday, the New York Times reported that that intelligence initially came from Israel. Both stories cited anonymous individuals as sources of the information.
Those stories generated searing criticism for the president, and chaos at the White House. But his allies say the leak is the real story. Breitbart, the far right site formerly helmed by Steve Bannon, has pushed this line enthusiastically. They aren’t alone in that view.
“The fact that the president shared classified information with a foreign government official, in and of itself, is classified,” a former senior intelligence official told The Daily Beast. “So whoever was trying to burn him for thinking he’s doing something wrong actually is the only one that committed a crime here.”
That all adds up to massive pressure on the Justice Department to track down and prosecute the officials responsible for the leaks. And the department’s new leadership could be uniquely up to the task.
Rod Rosenstein, Sessions’ top deputy at the Justice Department, is no stranger to leak prosecutions; one of the most high-profile cases he worked on as the Maryland U.S. Attorney was the prosecution of James Cartwright, the former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on charges related to leaking. The DOJ announced on Oct. 17, 2016 that Cartwright had pled guilty to making false statements to federal investigators. Obama pardoned him a few days before Trump’s inauguration, and before his sentencing.
Rosenstein, meanwhile, was unequivocal about his view that Cartwright deserved to do prison time.
“People who gain access to classified information after promising not to disclose it must be held accountable when they willfully violate that promise,” he said when the plea deal was announced.
Rosenstein sought a two-year prison sentence for Cartwright, citing the need to discourage others from leaking.
“[T]he need for deterrence is strong,” he wrote in a sentencing memo filed Jan. 10, 2017. “Everyday across the United States Government, individuals are entrusted with highly sensitive classified information. They must understand that disclosing such information to persons not authorized to receive it has severe consequences.”
As the deputy attorney general, Rosenstein oversees the day-to-day operations of the Justice Department and is deeply involved in making its most important decisions.
Elizabeth Goitein, who co-directs the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, said the Cartwright prosecution contributed to Rosenstein’s reputation as a straight-shooter impervious to politics——a reputation that got bludgeoned when he wrote a memo calling for Comey’s removal.
“I think the Big Kahuna here is the potential impending prosecution of [WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange, because it would be a sea change,” she added. “Julian Assange doesn’t have a lot of supporters, and for good reason, and so it would be a politically savvy way to blur the line between leakers who are violating the public trust and media entities that are publishing the information.”
Sessions has emphasized his focus on going after leakers, including Assange. In a March 30 appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show, the attorney general emphasized this.
“The leakers in the various agencies, federal agencies—you guys zeroing in on them? Do you think you’re going to have some indictments shortly?” O’Reilly asked.
“I expect we’ll get to the bottom of this,” Sessions replied. “This is not right. We’ve never seen this kind of leaking. It’s almost as if people think they have a right to violate the law, and this has got to end, and probably it will take some convictions to put an end to it.”
The president reportedly took things a step further in mid-February. According to The New York Times, he asked Comey to consider prosecuting reporters—not just those officials who leak to them.
Jesselyn Radack, director of the Whistleblower and Source Protection Program and Expose Facts, said she believes whoever leaked the story about the president’s conversation with Russian officials is a whistleblower. But that view is unlikely to find much support among the Trump administration and its allies.
When Trey Gowdy—floated for a time as a possible FBI director—grilled Comey on Capitol Hill on Feb. 20, he suggested journalists who publish classified information should potentially be prosecuted. And former Rep. Mike Rogers—endorsed by the FBI Agents Association for Comey’s old gig—said Chelsea Manning should have been executed for her role in WikiLeaks.
“I would support it 100 percent,” he told a Michigan radio station on Aug. 3, 2010.
“In my mind, it’s treason and you’ve got to send a very clear message,” he added.
Obama commuted Manning’s sentence, and she is set to be released today.
Top White House officials have also pushed for targeting journalists. In February, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus defended Trump’s assertion that reporters are “the enemy of the American People!” And Sean Spicer
Ben Wizner, who heads the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project and is Edward Snowden’s principal legal advisor, told The Daily Beast that Sessions and Trump have extraordinary powers to prosecute and incarcerate leakers——powers that have largely been untapped by previous administrations.
“The laws that can be deployed against government leakers are broad and draconian,” Wizner said. “And for all of our history, those laws have been broken but not enforced on a daily basis. A president and attorney general who are committed to enforcing those laws widely could change the legal landscape dramatically.”