(Bloomberg) -- U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he’s stepping up efforts to investigate and prosecute leaks of classified information with help from a new counterintelligence unit at the FBI, working to address a top concern of President Donald Trump.
“We are taking a stand,” Sessions said Friday at a news conference alongside Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. “This culture of leaking must stop.”
Though the event was planned earlier, Sessions noted it took place a day after the Washington Post published transcripts of phone conversations in January between Trump and the leaders of Australia and Mexico. Asked about the transcripts, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said Thursday that the continuing leaks are “damaging to our national security and it’s something we take very seriously.”
Sessions, who received assurances about his job security from the White House over the weekend after becoming the target of blunt criticism from Trump, previously pledged to crack down on leaks, especially after sensitive information about a terrorist attack in Manchester, England leaked to U.S. news media outlets in May.
Sessions emphasized Friday that he’s in accord with Trump. "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 attorney general didn’t unveil any new, specific actions the Trump administration is taking, and he declined to take questions after the announcement. Rather, Sessions said "the department is reviewing policies that impact leak investigations," including reviewing policies on subpoenaing media outlets that publish stories based on leaks.
"We respect the important role that the press plays and will give them respect, but it is not unlimited," Sessions, 70, said. "They cannot place lives at risk with impunity."
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told reporters the Justice Department will consider how to conduct media subpoenas “more expeditiously,” adding that current law imposes “procedural hurdles.”
“There is a new unit within the FBI focused on media leaks’’ because such cases raise “unique challenges,” Rosenstein said. Federal agency heads should also monitor their employees “who may be talking to reporters improperly,” he said.
This year, authorities have brought charges in four cases over unauthorized disclosures, including one media leak case, according to Rosenstein.
Asked if the Justice Department would prosecute reporters -- in addition to government officials who provide them information -- he said he wouldn’t comment on “any hypotheticals.’’
Recent leaks that have been embarrassing to the president, including conversations Trump had in the Oval Office, have appeared to come from within the White House. Asked whether the Justice Department would go after leaks from the White House, Rosenstein said: “We will prosecute any leaks that warrant prosecution.’’
Bolstering the complaint by Trump and his close aides that Washington insiders are determined to undermine him, Sessions said the Justice Department has received about as many criminal referrals regarding leaks in the first six months of this year as in the previous three years combined. Since January, the number of active leak investigations at the department has tripled, he added.
The president in recent weeks had called Sessions “weak” for recusing himself from the federal criminal investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and whether the president or any of his associates colluded with Moscow. He also said Sessions had taken “a VERY weak position” on “Hillary Clinton crimes” and “Intel leakers!”
Trump’s criticism was seen by some as a move to eventually put someone in charge at the Justice Department who would fire Robert Mueller from his post as special counsel leading the Russia investigation. However, new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told Sessions in a phone call last weekend that his position is safe.