Washington — Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Friday that the Justice Department was pursuing three times as many leak investigations as were open at the end of the previous administration, a significant devotion of law enforcement resources to hunt down the sources of unauthorized disclosures of information that have plagued the Trump administration.
Mr. Sessions vowed that the Justice Department would not hesitate to bring criminal charges against people who had leaked classified information. He also announced that the F.B.I. had created a new counterintelligence unit to manage these cases.
“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,” he said. The announcement by Mr. Sessions comes 10 days after President Trump publicly accused his attorney general of being “very weak” on pursuing these investigations.
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Mr. Sessions also said he had opened a review of Justice Department rules governing when investigators may issue subpoenas related to the news media and leak investigations. “We respect the important role that the press plays and will give them respect, but it is not unlimited,” he said. “They cannot place lives at risk with impunity.”
The news conference came against the backdrop of repeated pressure by Mr. Trump, in public and in private, for the Justice Department and the F.B.I. to search for people inside the government who have been telling reporters what was happening behind closed doors.
The Justice Department declined to disclose specific figures for the number of open investigations it is now pursuing.
President Barack Obama’s administration oversaw a crackdown on people who talked to reporters about government secrets without authorization, bringing more leak-related criminal cases than all previous presidents combined.
But Mr. Trump has suggested an even harder line.
In February, Mr. Trump told James B. Comey, then the F.B.I. director, that the bureau should consider prosecuting reporters for publishing classified information, according to one of Mr. Comey’s associates. Mr. Sessions on Friday did not respond to a question about whether such a step, which would raise First Amendment issues, was under consideration.
The department’s rules require investigators to exhaust all other ways to obtain the information they are seeking before subpoenaing journalists for notes or testimony that could force them to help investigators identify their confidential sources.
In 2013, after a backlash in Congress and the news media over aggressive tactics to go after reporters’ information in leak investigations, then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. decided to revise those rules to tighten limits on when the government is allowed to subpoena telephone companies for logs of a reporter’s phone calls, which could reveal their confidential sources.
The changes made it harder for law enforcement officials to obtain such logs without providing advance notice and giving news organizations a chance to contest the request in court.
Mr. Sessions’ deputy, Rod J. Rosenstein, said the review of the guidelines had just begun and it was not clear what, if anything, would be changed.
Mr. Sessions was joined in the news conference by Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence. The two are co-chairmen of an insider threat task force first established by the Obama administration in 2011 after Chelsea Manning’s leak of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic and military files to WikiLeaks. Mr. Coats threatened to administratively discipline people suspected of leaking, apart from any prosecution.
“Understand this: if you improperly disclose classified information, we will find you, we ill investigate you, we will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law, and you will not be happy with the results,” Mr. Coats said.
The Trump administration has been bedeviled by leaks large and small that have disclosed infighting inside his administration, including the president’s rancorous phone conversations with foreign leaders. Information shared with reporters brought to light what surveillance showed about contacts by Mr. Trump’s associates with Russia and even what Mr. Trump said to Russian visitors in the Oval Office about his firing of Mr. Comey, the former F.B.I. director.
In May, Mr. Trump himself disclosed sensitive intelligence to visiting Russian officials about an Islamic State plot, blurting out details that had been shared by Israel — a disclosure that some intelligence officials worried might have effectively exposed an important Israeli government source. The president does have the authority to declassify and disclose information at his own discretion.
Not all leaks are illegal, but the Espionage Act and a handful of other federal statutes criminalize the unauthorized disclosure of certain categories of national-security related information that could harm the country or aid a foreign adversary.
In February, Mr. Trump said at a news conference that he told Mr. Sessions to look into leaks — an unusual thing to say, since presidents generally try to avoid appearing as if they are asserting political control over law enforcement.
Mr. Comey also wrote in a memo, recounting one of his conversations with Mr. Trump, that the president had told him to consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information.
It would be unusual to prosecute a journalist for publishing government secrets, a step that would raise significant First Amendment issues. Mr. Sessions took no questions, but Mr. Rosenstein afterward demurred when asked whether he would prosecute reporters for doing their jobs, saying he would not “comment on hypotheticals.”
Mr. Trump has continued to periodically demand a leak crackdown, including criticizing Mr. Sessions in Twitter posts for not doing more. On July 25, for example, the president posted on Twitter, “Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are emails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!”
Once rare, leak cases have become far more common in the 21st century, in part because of electronic trails that make it easier for investigators to determine who had access to a leaked document and was in contact with a reporter. Depending on how they are counted, the Obama administration brought nine or 10 leak-related prosecutions.
To date, the Trump administration has brought one new criminal leak case. In June, it arrested and charged Reality Leigh Winner, a contractor working for the National Security Agency, with sending a classified intelligence report about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election to the news media.
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