George Boardman: Sessions is going to plug leaks to the media? Good luck with that | TheUnion.com
George Boardman
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George Boardman: Sessions is going to plug leaks to the media? Good luck with that

The Trump administration is embarking on a mission that has been impossible for its predecessors: Stopping leaks to the news media.

Actually, leak isn't a word that accurately describes the current situation. Flood is a better metaphor because information seems to flow out of the White House about as fast as the Mississippi River rises in spring time.

So Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced a new effort to find and prosecute leakers. The Department of Justice has tripled the number of leak investigations and has created a new counterintelligence squad at the FBI to handle them. Sessions also signaled that the department may become more aggressive about prosecuting journalists, saying those policies are under review.

"We are taking a stand. This culture of leaking must stop," Sessions said in announcing the new initiative. "No one is entitled to surreptitiously fight their battles in the media by revealing sensitive government information. No government can be effective when its leaders cannot discuss sensitive matters in confidence or to talk freely in confidence with foreign leaders."

Sessions was responding in part to criticism from Donald Trump, who has said on several occasions the attorney general has been "very weak" on prosecuting leakers. But don't expect the president to lead by example in this area.

Trump has revealed sensitive information on several occasions and during the campaign, encouraged the Russians to obtain Hillary Clinton's 30,000 missing emails, some of which probably included classified information. Most recently, he retweeted a story from Fox News that contained classified information about North Korea's nuclear program.

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When asked about the story on "Fox and Friends," UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said she couldn't discuss classified information in public and said the story was "incredibly dangerous" to the interests of the United States. Listen to your ambassador, Donny.

In the early days of the Trump administration, it was assumed that many of the leaks came from holdovers from the Obama administration that were bitter about Clinton's defeat. But those people are long gone, and the leaking has become worse. Trump's administrative style is partially to blame.

It is said the president likes to see tension and conflict within his staff, and the current White House staff reflects the two major wings of the Republican Party: The traditional internationalists who believe we must be the leader of the free word, and the nativist America firsters who believe it is time to raise the draw bridge and focus on our domestic problems.

Each side seeks supremacy in this ideological battle, and one of the preferred weapons is the strategic leak that damages the other side while getting the president's attention. The paranoia this creates has become so pervasive in the White House that we recently witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of a former director of communications accusing a former chief of staff of leaking.

If the media came clean on their sources of information, Trump would be shocked and outraged at how many of his trusted advisors have been leaking stories to the media. But there is a simple solution to this problem: Trump has to define his policy objectives and then hire staff that will pull on the oar he has chosen. Ninety percent of the leaks will magically disappear.

The other part of the equation is the media, and Sessions said it will get more attention from his plumbers. "We respect the important role the press plays and we'll give them respect, but it is not unlimited," he said. "They cannot place lives at risk without impunity."

Given Trump's antipathy toward the news media, this has caused alarm within the American Civil Liberties Union and various journalist organizations. I don't recall these panic attacks when the Obama administration was putting the squeeze on reporters and editors.

Obama pursued more leak cases than any other administration through the use of the Espionage Act, a broadly written law that makes it a crime to reveal information that the leaker "has reason to believe" could be used to injure the United States or help another nation.

No journalists were prosecuted, but Obama administration prosecutors subpoenaed records, secretly obtained phone logs, and pressured reporters to reveal their sources until Attorney General Eric Holder decided in 2015 DOJ had gone too far, changing policies that made it more difficult to go after journalists' records. Sessions said these policies are now under review.

But given the nature of politics (and people), any Trump administration attempts to plug the leaks will be no more than moderately successful so long as the media remains a weapon for disgruntled people and those who yearn for power.

People who leak stories always have an agenda; otherwise, they wouldn't take the chance of being caught. As any political or government reporter in Sacramento or Washington can tell you, people are constantly providing tips designed to torpedo or promote a piece of legislation, a government policy, or an appointed or elected official.

Political operatives also employ the reverse of this, floating trial balloons to see how much support or opposition exists for a pending proposal. If opposition is strong enough, advocates can (and do) say, "It is one of many options we are considering," deep six the idea, and try something else.

Tipsters' motives might not be pure, but reporters know they don't do business with saints. Everybody they deal with has their own agenda, and a reporter's response to a tip is simple: Is it true? If it is, they might have a story.

The most famous (or infamous, depending on your politics) tipster of recent times was Mark Felt, the Deep Throat of Watergate who managed to bring down a president of the United States. Felt was a career FBI employee who was passed over by Richard Nixon for the top job at the bureau, so he got his revenge by feeding reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein the basic information they needed to discredit the president.

Felt wasn't operating from the high ethical ground, but that doesn't make him unique. History is full of people who did the right thing for less than noble reasons.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at ag101board@aol.com.

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