Citing the "staggering" number of leaks that have emerged from the Trump White House over the last several months, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced during a press conference on Friday that the Justice Department is gearing up to intensify its pursuit of those who disclose sensitive and classified information.
"The crackdown is a backdoor way of attacking journalists on whom the public relies to be informed about government misconduct."
—Jesselyn Radack, ExposeFacts
Sessions went on to declare that the Justice Department will seek to punish not just those who leak the information, but also the news organizations that decide to publish it. The department will soon be conducting a "review" of its "policies affecting media subpoenas," Sessions said.
These comments—which come in the midst of President Donald Trump's sustained attacks on journalists and the media—were viewed by press freedom groups, journalists, and civil libertarians as "a direct attack on the First Amendment."
Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said in response to Sessions's press conference that "[e]very American should be concerned about the Trump administration's threat to step up its efforts against whistleblowers and journalists," as it represents an attack "on democracy as a whole."
"These first months of the Trump administration dramatically illustrate" the necessity of a free press, Wizner concluded. "Can anyone seriously argue that our country would be better off if the public received all of its information through official channels alone?"
Jesselyn Radack, director of the Whistleblower and Source Protection Program (WHISPeR) at ExposeFacts, echoed these sentiments in a statement on Friday, arguing that Sessions appears bent on fostering a "McCarthy-esque culture within the federal government."
"The Justice Department's crackdown on leaks wrongly targets and punishes national security whistleblowers, who have no meaningful internal channels for dissent or meaningful protection from retaliation," Radack said. "The crackdown is a backdoor way of attacking journalists on whom the public relies to be informed about government misconduct."
Journalists also weighed in on social media:
But here, Sessions threatens the free press — which is protected by the First Amendment. DOJ "reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas." pic.twitter.com/OI2hipCqKh— Tom Namako (@TomNamako) August 4, 2017
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subpoenas to get at sources are probably the most legit and no-B.S. threat to press freedom— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) August 4, 2017
The context for Sessions' investigations is not just more leaking - it's Trump urging Comey to jail reporters for *publishing* information: pic.twitter.com/R7VvcHJTeQ— Ari Melber (@AriMelber) August 4, 2017
According to the Freedom of the Press Foundation, "Sessions's comments seem intended to have a chilling effect on journalism, by making reporters and their sources think twice before publishing information that the government does not like. That will leave leave all Americans less informed about what the Trump administration is doing behind closed doors.