Under intense pressure from the White House, the Justice Department is prepared to aggressively prosecute government officials who leak classified information. Justice Department officials told The Daily Beast that targeting leakers will be a priority during Jeff Sessions’ time as attorney general—a posture that will hearten national security hawks, while concerning advocates of whistleblower protections.
“As the Attorney General has said, the Department of Justice takes unlawful leaks very seriously and those that engage in such activity should be held accountable,” an official told The Daily Beast.
On Monday afternoon, the Washington Post broke the news that Trump shared classified information about ISIS with Russian officials. And on Tuesday, the New York Times reported that that intelligence initially came from Israel. Both stories cited anonymous individuals as sources of the information.
Those stories generated searing criticism for the president, and chaos at the White House. But his allies say the leak is the real story. Breitbart, the far right site formerly helmed by Steve Bannon, has pushed this line enthusiastically. They aren’t alone in that view.
“The fact that the president shared classified information with a foreign government official, in and of itself, is classified,” a former senior intelligence official told The Daily Beast. “So whoever was trying to burn him for thinking he’s doing something wrong actually is the only one that committed a crime here.”
That all adds up to massive pressure on the Justice Department to track down and prosecute the officials responsible for the leaks. And the department’s new leadership could be uniquely up to the task.
Rod Rosenstein, Sessions’ top deputy at the Justice Department, is no stranger to leak prosecutions; one of the most high-profile cases he worked on as the Maryland U.S. Attorney was the prosecution of James Cartwright, the former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on charges related to leaking. The DOJ announced on Oct. 17, 2016 that Cartwright had pled guilty to making false statements to federal investigators. Obama pardoned him a few days before Trump’s inauguration, and before his sentencing.
Rosenstein, meanwhile, was unequivocal about his view that Cartwright deserved to do prison time.
“People who gain access to classified information after promising not to disclose it must be held accountable when they willfully violate that promise,” he said when the plea deal was announced.
Pay attention to this, as the obvious right-wing crusade here will be to attack leakers and the press that publishes the leaks, and for both groups to be exterminated by Trump.
This is the real test of how authoritarian we're going to be under Trump, more than a few times Trump officials have casually mentioned things like "putting journalists in prison" or that America needs the equivalent of the UK's State Secrets Act allowing that to happen.
Don't be surprised if we start going that route, especially the closer we get to finding out the truth on Trump and Russia. The call to start rounding up reporters will be very loud, and there will be tens of millions of Americans who will want to go along with it.
The rest of us have to be ready to resist.