The number of leak probes run out of the Justice Department has increased 800%, according to testimony Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered today on Capitol Hill.
At the beginning of his hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Chairman Bob Goodlatte asked Sessions about efforts to crack down on the unlawful release of classified information to reporters. Sessions said the Justice Department currently has 27 open investigations into these matters. He added that in the previous three years, there have been a total of nine such investigations –– just three last year.
A nine-fold increase, in other words.
“In the whole history of the country, there have only been about a dozen prosecutions for leaks,” said Ben Wizner, an attorney with the ACLU who also represents Edward Snowden. “So the 27 number, if it’s real, is staggering.”
President Donald Trump has put considerable pressure on the attorney general to investigate leaks. Justice Department officials told The Daily Beast in March that this would be a priority for Sessions, and he formally announced on Aug. 4 that the Justice Department would revisit its internal policies on handling investigations that involve reporters.
Sessions suggested in his testimony that reporters have gotten too comfortable with the status quo when it comes to reporting on classified material.
“There’s some things the press seems to think they have an absolute right to that they do not have an absolute right to,” the attorney general said.
Asked to clarify that statement, a Justice Department spokesperson noted this Sessions’ statement, from August: “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.”
Steven Aftergood, who heads the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, said Sessions’ revelation likely means there will be an increase in indictments and prosecutions of leakers.
“I have no reason to think it's false,” he said, of the attorney general’s announcement. “And a ninefold increase in leak investigations is really enormous.”
Besides the high-profile targeting of former NSA contractor Reality Winner, it isn’t yet clear who is under Justice Department scrutiny for leaking. But the investigations could have dramatic collateral consequences.
Former FBI Criminal Investigative Division chief Ron Hosko said leak probes are labor- and resource-intensive. He said agents at the bureau’s headquarters in downtown Washington D.C. are probably working on the investigations, as well as agents from the Washington field office.
He also told The Daily Beast that he suspects some of the classified leaks which have plagued the Trump administration have come from Capitol Hill.
“My personal view is, let the chips fall where they may,” Hosko said. “If it’s sensitive, classified information and somebody is deliberately leaking it for their own aggrandizement –– to embarrass somebody else, or for any criminal purpose –– Sessions, FBI, DOJ: Do your job. Do your job.”
So prosecuting leakers may involve prosecuting senior Hill staffers, or even members. In the past, administrations have cringed at the thought of going after Congress, which could raise major Constitutional questions. But if that’s where some leaks are coming from, as Hosko suspects, then the Justice Department may find the prospect to be more tempting than ever. It’s a prospect that could turn Donald Trump’s proverbial swamp into a cauldron.