(CN) – The Justice Department is making changes to its policies on subpoenaing news organizations as part of its crackdown on government leaks, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Friday.
“We respect the important role that the press plays, and we’ll give them respect, but it is not unlimited,” Sessions said. “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.”
Sessions noted during a late morning news conference that the DOJ under his leadership has devoted more resources to “seriously ramping up” investigations of classified leaks.
Since he took over, Sessions said the DOJ has charged four people for classified disclosures or hiding contacts with federal officers.
He outlined a zero tolerance policy for classified leaks from government employees.
“Criminals who would illegally use their access to our most sensitive information to endanger our national security are in fact being investigated, and will be prosecuted,” Sessions added.
The attorney general said the department does not confirm or deny the existence of specific investigations, but nevertheless offered that “since January, the department has more than triple the number of active leak investigations compared to the number pending at the end of the last administration.”
Sessions also stressed repeatedly that a way to solve the problem is to change the culture in government, which routinely leaks classified information. After a review of how the agency handles leak investigations, Sessions said he said he discovered “too few referrals” and “too few investigations.”
“This culture of leaking must stop,” he said. Directing his comments to would-be leakers, Sessions cautioned: “Don’t do it.”
The press conference came after eight months of continuous leaks that have beleaguered the White House and the Trump administration, the latest of which on Thursday revealed details of conversations President Trump had with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Trump has repeatedly called for the DOJ to more aggressively prosecute leaks.
“I strongly agree with the president and condemn in the strongest terms, the staggering number of leaks undermining the ability of our government to protect this country,” Sessions said.
“No government can be affective when its leaders cannot discuss sensitive matters in confidence or talk freely in confidence with foreign leaders,” he added.
Sessions said the National Security Insider Threat Task Force, established in 2011 during the Obama administration, has made some changes to help ramp up their efforts to investigate and prosecute leaks of classified information.
He said the agency would prioritize cases involving classified disclosures, which Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and newly confirmed FBI director Christopher Wray will oversee.
Part of the DOJ’s ramped up effort also includes a new FBI unit dedicated specifically to investigating media leaks.
During an untelevised session after the press conference, Rosenstein said the unit was created because media leaks pose unique challenges.
He had no comment, however, when asked if he would commit the agency to not prosecuting journalists. But he did say that he anticipates meeting with media representatives before making any changes to the agency’s policies on media subpoenas.
Rosenstein stressed, when asked, that the department is only reviewing those policies and taking a “fresh look” at them.
He did not say what, if any, changes the department is considering making to those policies.
During the press conference, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said the intelligence community has in the past several years had to contend with the worst disclosures of classified information it has ever faced.
“They have resulted in a major threat to our national security,” Coats said, adding that they have endangered the lives of Americans at home and abroad.
Rosenstein had no comment when asked to elaborate on Coats’ comment, saying that he would not specify how leaks put American lives on the line.
Sessions, Coats and Rosenstein all said the DOJ should do more to make government employees with legitimate concerns aware of proper internal whistle blowing channels.
According to Coats, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, which the Office of the Director of National Intelligence oversees, will make recommendations to strengthen the security clearance process.
Efforts will also be made to restrict the universe of government employees classified information is circulated among in order to narrow the pool of potential leakers, making them easier to identify, Rosenstein said.
Coats said his agency would take all steps necessary to identify leakers and will support prosecution. He added that he will exercise his full authorities as DNI to punish leakers, issuing a warning of his own to would-be leakers.
“We will find you, we will prosecute you to the full extent of the law, and you will not be happy,” he said.