Attorney General Jeff Sessions, speaking to a room full of reporters on Friday, said he is reviewing policies that allow journalists to protect sources without going to jail as part of a broader effort to crack down on the steady stream of leaks coming out of the federal government.
“We respect the important role that the press plays,” said Sessions, “and we’ll give them respect, but it is not unlimited.”
Current DOJ guidelines say that a prosecutor should issue a subpoena against a reporter only as an absolute last resort and only when they have exhausted all other avenues for obtaining information. Local prosecutors are also told to seek clearance with justice officials at the highest levels before issuing a subpoena against a member of the media.
Federal guidelines for media subpoenas and reporter protections were last amended in 2015, when a coalition of news media organizations led by the Reporters Committee met with former Attorney General Eric Holder. Holder was getting lambasted by press freedom advocates for his leaks prosecutions, during which he subpoenaed phone records from the Associated Press and named James Rosen, a Fox News reporter, as a “co-conspirator” under the 1917 Espionage Act, as a way to access his personal emails and phone records.
While Sessions didn’t give further details about what exact policies he is considering amending, press freedom organizations are worried, particularly given President Donald Trump’s regular incendiary comments bashing the media. David Boardman, chairman of the Reporters Committee, said in a statement that Sessions’ suggestion was “a dangerous threat to the freedom of American people to know and understand what their leaders are doing, and why.”
Sessions also suggested that news organizations that publish leaked material were irresponsible. “[Reporters] cannot place lives at risk with impunity,” he said.
Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce Brown, calling the attorney general’s words “deeply troubling,” bristled at the accusation. “Journalists and news organizations have a long history of handling this information in a responsible way,” Brown said in a statement.
Sessions and Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence, also offered blunt warnings to government employees who might leak information.
Citing an “unprecedented rise in leaks” in recent months, Sessions warned that “a culture of leaking can take hold.”
“We have this message for our friends in the intelligence community: The DOJ is open for business,” Sessions said. “And I have this warning for would-be leakers: Don’t do it.”
Sessions said that the DOJ had “more than tripled” the number of active leak investigations since January, compared to the number of investigations pending at the end of the Obama administration.
Despite paying lip service to respecting journalists, Sessions did not take questions from reporters at the end of the news conference.
Trump routinely rails against the tide of leaks coming out of his administration, and discredits critical news reports as “fake news.” In light of his comments (on the campaign trail, he threatened to weaken First Amendment protections for reporters), the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Freedom of the Press Foundation, together with other groups, have launched a tracker to monitor arrests, assaults, and legal actions taken against journalists in 2017.