Sessions announces hunt for leakers, says cases have 'exploded'

Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other top administration officials lashed out Friday against illegal leaks and issued a stern warning that offenders will be “held accountable,” announcing new efforts to hunt them down.  

“No government can be effective when its members cannot speak in confidence” with other government leaders, Sessions said, referring specifically to the bombshell leak a day earlier of President Trump's conversations with foreign leaders. 

He said referrals of classified leaks from U.S. intelligence agencies have “exploded” this year.

“We are taking a stand,” the attorney general said. “This culture of leaks must stop.”

Session said criminals who have leaked classified information are “being investigated and will be prosecuted.” He added that four people have already been charged with leaking classified material and related counts, and investigations have tripled.

Sessions said he has directed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and new FBI Director Christopher Wray to oversee all classified leak investigations and actively monitor the progress.

He said a new counterintelligence unit has been created to manage cases, and he has directed the National Security Division and U.S. attorneys to prioritize cases involving unauthorized disclosures.

“The department will not hesitate to bring lawful and appropriate criminal charges against those who abuse the nation’s trust,” he said.

Sessions also had some sharp words for the media, saying he would order a review of the current subpoena policy regarding leaks of classified information and called the publication of such materials as something that places lives "at risk." 

David Boardman, chairman of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, fired back. 

"What the attorney general is suggesting is a dangerous threat to the freedom of the American people to know and understand what their leaders are doing, and why," Boardman said in a statement. 

Leak cases have traditionally been difficult to prove and prosecute. In 2015, Attorney General Eric Holder issued new guidelines on obtaining information from members of the media. Sessions said Friday that he’s reviewing the DOJ’s policy on issuing subpoenas to reporters.

Under the Obama administration, federal prosecutors brought charges in nine cases – more than all previous administrations combined.  

Still, it was clear by Sessions’ comments that the Trump administration would go after any leakers of sensitive information.

Last month, a report written by Republicans on the Senate’s homeland security panel warned that the Trump administration faced an “alarming” amount of media leaks that posed a potential threat to national security. The 24-page report, titled “State Secrets: How and Avalanche of Media Leaks is Harming National Security,” estimated the Trump administration has had about one leak per day. 

The authors of the report urged the Justice Department to step up its investigations into the leaks.

On Thursday, a new leak hit the White House hard. 

The Washington Post released complete transcripts from Trump’s telephone conversations with Enrique Peña Nieto, the president of Mexico, and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The documents provided an unfiltered glimpse into Trump’s diplomacy during his first few days on the job. It also unveiled some not-so-nice comments he made in which he called New Hampshire a “drug infested den” and pleaded with Nieto to stay quiet about the controversial border wall Trump repeatedly promised he’d build.

“Leaking the phone calls between our president and other heads of state is nothing short of a national disgrace,” Kellyanne Conway, White House counselor, told “Fox & Friends” on Friday. “I want there to be bipartisan outrage.”

She noted the West Wing is a “small place” and finding the leakers might be “easier” than some realize.”

Former federal prosecutors told Fox News that the leak likely constitutes a federal crime. And lawmakers have voiced concern about how that material got out and the security implications.

Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bob Corker of Tennessee lashed out at the person behind the leak, with Graham calling it a “disservice to the president” and Corker saying he hopes Trump’s new chief of staff will “fire every single person” who is behind leaking sensitive information from within the White House.

Though Friday’s announcement has been in the works for some time, it comes during a rocky period between Trump and Sessions. Trump has taken the former Alabama senator to task over the past few weeks and has stated his “disappointment” with the country’s top law enforcement official via tweets, interviews and press conferences.

Trump slammed Sessions for not being tougher on leaks from the intelligence community.

"I want the attorney general to be much tougher," Trump said last week. "I want the leaks from intelligence agencies, which are leaking like rarely have they ever leaked before, at a very important level. These are intelligence agencies we cannot have that happen.”

Fox News' Doug McKelway contributed to this report.