President-elect Donald Trump isn’t waiting until his inauguration to push for investigations of leaks to the press — an indication that he’ll emulate and possibly surpass President Obama’s practice of criminalizing disclosures to the media.
Trump on Friday urged Congress to investigate leaks of “top secret intelligence shared with NBC,” in a tweet:
I am asking the chairs of the House and Senate committees to investigate top secret intelligence shared with NBC prior to me seeing it.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 6, 2017
He was apparently referring to the NBC News write-up of what was actually a leak to the Washington Post, which reported on Thursday about the contents of a new Obama administration report describing alleged efforts by the Russian government to influence the U.S. election. NBC confirmed the Post’s account with an anonymous “senior U.S. intelligence official.”
Trump was briefed on the report on Friday afternoon, and an unclassified version was released publicly.
Unauthorized leaks of information are essential for journalists investigating the government, and free speech advocates were quick to condemn Trump’s impulse to crack down on them.
“It is worrisome that the president-elect, even before taking office, is training his sights on the media,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director at PEN America, one of the largest writers groups defending freedom of expression.
“Amid the seriousness of the allegations of hacking and foreign interference in our election, asking the House and Senate to look into an alleged leak is a woeful diversion of resources and has the potential to chill the ability of the press to play their crucial role going forward.”
Senator Wyden, D-Ore., a prominent member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also expressed concern.
When he becomes president, Trump will inherit a Justice Department already accustomed to aggressively investigating and prosecuting leaks.
Despite claiming to oversee “most transparent administration in history,” Obama has presided over an unprecedented crackdown on leaks and whistleblowers, laying the groundwork for future presidents to threaten would-be leakers.
Obama has used the Espionage Act — a World War I-era law designed to outlaw spying — to prosecute twice as many leakers as all his predecessors put together. As part of leak investigations, the Justice Department has authorized the FBI to collect the phone records and emails of journalists, even naming a Fox News reporter an unindicted “co-conspirator” in one case.
Obama even opposed efforts to grant journalists more legal protection. After Congress was close to passing a law in 2009 that would have shielded reporters from having to testify against sources, Obama’s demands to add exceptions to the bill ended up killing it.
The Obama administration fought a costly, seven-year legal battle to force Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Reporter James Risen to testify against his sources after reporting on a botched operation where the CIA passed nuclear blueprints to Iranian scientists. The government dropped its subpoena only after taking the case to the Supreme Court, likely to avoid negative publicity for jailing a reporter.
In several weeks, the system Obama has created will pass to the next president, who has already proven himself deeply hostile to press freedom.
Throughout his campaign, Trump threatened to sue newspapers for negative coverage. In response to the Chelsea bombings in New York City in September, he told Fox News that “freedom of the press” was what allowed terrorists to learn how to build bombs. He said that the press has “too much protection,” and that he wants to “open up our libel laws” to make it easier to sue media companies.
Writing in the New York Times last month, Risen argued that Obama’s expansive war on press freedom laid that groundwork for future abuses. “If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistleblower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.I. to spy on a journalist,” Risen said, “he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama.”