Aug 5, 2017

Trump's risky leak war

Andrew Harnik / AP

At an off-camera briefing with Department of Justice officials after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a jihad against leaks yesterday, a reporter asked: "Longstanding DOJ policy is not to prosecute reporters. Are you willing to say today that you will not prosecute reporters for doing their job?"

  • Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein replied: "I'm not going to comment on any hypotheticals. I'm just not going to talk about it."
  • It was an ominous moment for the press, in an era when journalists are more threatened and less trusted than ever.

Focusing on his audience of one, in the Oval Office, Sessions said: "We are taking a stand. This culture of leaking must stop. ... So, today, I have this message for the intelligence community: The Department of Justice is open for business. And I have this warning for would-be leakers: Don't do it."

And the A.G. announced: "[T]he FBI has increased resources devoted to leak cases and created a new counterintelligence unit to manage these cases."

This offensive, despite the appealing politics at first blush, is fraught with risk for Trump. With these investigations in the hands of career FBI agents, they can lead to unexpected places: You could wind up prosecuting a West Wing official, not some deep-state Obama holdover.

  • On The Daily Beast, Betsy Woodruff and Noah Shactman quoted Ron Hosko, former deputy director of the FBI, as saying "these changes could result in prosecution of members of Congress and Hill staffers."
  • Hosko told The Beast that in the past, "the FBI identified members of Congress who leaked classified information, who the Justice Department then declined to prosecute. Agents were often frustrated by this ... Given the attorney general's announcement, ... Congress and Hill staffers may be more likely to face prosecution."
  • When I asked an administration official if the possible ramifications for the Hill had been discussed, the official merely noted that many of the leaks are thought to be coming from there.
  • An Obama leak investigation regarding cyberattacks on Iran led to retired Marine Gen. James "Hoss" Cartwright, a former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who had been called "Obama's favorite general." He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and prosecutors had asked for two years in prison. Obama pardoned him three days before leaving office.
  • A senior Obama official told Axios' Jonathan Swan that they regretted their aggressive stance on leaks to Fox News' James Rosen and other media cases: The costs at the senior level outweighed the benefits.

Be smart: Administration officials sound convinced that with their all-base-all-the-time strategy, the politics of this is great for them.

But as an Obama alumnus pointed out to Swan: Can you imagine President Obama saying that Eric Holder, his own attorney general, had taken a "very weak" stand and needed to be "much tougher" on something — and 10 days later, Holder announced just such a crackdown?

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