Thanks, Obama! Trump Is Expanding Your Effort to Imprison Leakers!

Justice Department announces tripling of investigations.


President Obama
Matt Summer/Newscom

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced today that the Department of Justice has tripled the number of investigations into unauthorized leaks of government information and will be examining their rules for subpoenaing journalists.

The press conference lacked details—after complaining about leakers and saying that the power of the press to report is not unlimited, Sessions declined to answer any reporters' questions. But Sessions and his department clearly want both leakers and journalists to know that they are actively trying to hunt down sources of information. Sessions said he fully intends to prosecute any he can find.

In other words, Sessions is continuing a war that began before he took office. Nothing he said today is all that different from how the federal government under President Barack Obama treated unauthorized leaks other than the expansion of the effort.

Obama's Department of Justice aggressively pursued leaks, invoked the Espionage Act to prosecute people, snooped on the press, and even threatened journalists with prison to try to make them give up sources. The department eventually changed its policies after the revelation that it had been surveilling journalists to try to track down leakers. But those policies can be changed back, and that may be what Sessions intends to do.

Obama famously campaigned on transparency but his administration provided anything but that. Federal agencies took years to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests. Such a paucity of information practically requires reporters to depend on leaks in order to get information.

To many media outlets' credit, reports on today's press conference have contextualized the news by including this Obama-era history. While the ramping up of leak investigations is certainly worth acknowledging—and definitely worth worrying about—journalists are not pretending this is some new development stemming exclusively from the Trump administration's problems. Apparently, the media have a good memory about past administrations' authoritarian tendencies when those tendencies directly affect their work.

Bringing up Obama here isn't "Whataboutism." It's about recognizing that we've been on this slippery slide for years. The government has been demanding the authority to decide what information the public is allowed to know, and it frequently defaults to secrecy instead of openness. Sessions and Trump are being more open and aggressive about attitudes that already existed. (Sessions actually criticized the Obama administration for not being aggressive enough against leakers, even though Obama set records for such prosecutions.)

When an administration decries all these leaks as threats to national security but what we actually learn from them is important for us to know, we should think carefully about the tendency to defer to the government about what should be publicly disclosed.