The Justice Department has experienced an "explosion" in the number of referrals, or requests for probes, this year from intelligence agencies over the leak of classified information, prompting the attorney general to consider whether to loosen regulations on when it can subpoena media organizations.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions condemned the "staggering" number of leaks and reported that the number of active investigations into the unauthorized disclosure of national security information has tripled in 2017. He said authorities would take strong measures to stop "the culture of leaking."
"I have this message for would-be leakers," Sessions said at a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Friday, "don't do it."
The Justice Department said it was adopting a new approach after hearing complaints from career lawyers and FBI agents about the slow pace of leak probes. Authorities are evaluating how to streamline those investigations. That includes, they said, policies that require high-level approval before reporters and media companies can be compelled to turn over information.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who joined Sessions at the conference, said the department didn't know yet what, if any, changes it might make to the media policies. Rosenstein said he would meet with media representatives to discuss the ideas next week. Rosenstein declined to answer a question about whether prosecutors would rule out bringing criminal charges against reporters for doing their jobs.
Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, warned that the administration's approach to cracking down on leaks risks chilling debates about important issues in the public interest.
"Whistleblowers are the nation's first line of defense against fraud, waste, abuse and illegality within the federal government. The last thing this administration wants to do is to deter whistleblowing in an effort to stymie leaks," Brian said. "This administration must carefully tailor the parameters for this investigation with this important consideration in mind."
And the American Civil Liberties Union warned of the greater impact that the crackdown could have. "Every American should be concerned about the Trump administration's threat to step up its efforts against whistleblowers and journalists," said the ACLU's Ben Wizner, who works primarily on national security cases for the civil rights organization. "A crackdown on leaks is a crackdown on the free press and on democracy as a whole."
Wizner added, "Our founders understood that democracy depends on an informed citizenry, and leaders can't be trusted to disclose vital information that reflects poorly on themselves. These first months of the Trump administration dramatically illustrate that point. Can anyone seriously argue that our country would be better off if the public received all of its information through official channels alone?"
But Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who was also at Friday's event, said federal employees should report suspicions of wrongdoing within their organizations or to Congress — and not take matters into their own hands.
To members of the intelligence community who may be considering an unauthorized leak, Coats said, "Anyone who engages in these criminal acts is betraying the intelligence community and the American people."
This year, the Justice Department indicted a government contractor, Reality Winner, for allegedly leaking National Security Agency information to the Intercept, a national security website. Winner has pleaded not guilty.