By JONATHAN JONESMAN The next big story in the US government’s fight against leaking comes from the Department of Justice.
It’s a lawsuit by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) that alleges that the US intelligence community broke the law when it allowed leaks to continue to flow out of the US even after it became clear that the leaks had been damaging to US national security.
The US Attorney General, Eric Holder, has taken a very different stance, saying that the DOJ’s lawsuit was aimed at the intelligence community and that it did not target the US Congress.
“The government has always defended the integrity of the intelligence communities mission and our institutions to ensure that we can protect the country and our people, while protecting our constitutional rights,” Holder said.
He added that leaks of classified information “do not threaten the national security of the United States.”
US intelligence agencies “have a duty to protect our nation’s secrets and to make sure that they’re protected from unauthorized disclosure,” Holder wrote in a memo to the Justice Department.
“We cannot, and should not, allow unauthorized disclosures of classified materials, including information on sensitive matters.”
The lawsuit alleges that there were “multiple failures to prevent or deter” the leaking of information that led to the death of journalist James Risen, and that the leak of classified material that resulted in the killing of journalist Glen Doherty led to Doherty’s death.
The suit was filed by a group of US citizens including former US Rep. Jim Moran, who was fired from his position as chairman of the House intelligence committee last year over the Doherty murder, as well as former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of House oversight committee.
The Department of Homeland Security has also come under fire for allowing US citizens to enter the US without visas, and for allowing a number of the former whistleblowers to travel without visas to the UK and France.
The Justice Department has responded by filing a lawsuit against the US Senate for failing to stop leaks from leaking out of government offices, and also by filing an amicus brief with the House of Representatives.
The DOJ is not the only government agency taking a more aggressive stance against leaking, though.
US President Donald Trump has ordered the FBI to look into the possibility of pardons for former national security leakers who were caught with sensitive information, and the Department is working on a “zero tolerance” policy for leaking that includes “detection, prosecution, and imprisonment for anyone who leaks classified information”.
The DOJ’s move to investigate leaks is a major development for whistleblower advocates who are looking for more accountability from the US.
“This is a massive victory for the American people who are frustrated that they don’t have access to their own government or their own elected officials,” says Mark Rumold, senior counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“If this doesn’t stop the leaks coming out, we’re not going to be able to fix the leaks.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been one of the strongest supporters of whistleblowers in the last several years.
In 2014, the ACLU joined the House Intelligence Committee in supporting a bill that would have required the government to take “immediate action” to investigate any leaking of classified documents.
“It’s the right thing to do,” says Marc Rotenberg, legal director for the ACLU.
“Congress has a responsibility to protect the intelligence services from unauthorized disclosures, and they need to do that without jeopardizing their ability to protect national security.”
“We are hopeful that this case will deter others from leaking,” says David Coletto, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.
“As more people are exposed to leaks, the public will see the consequences and they will demand accountability from government agencies.”
As the Justice and Intelligence departments take a more forceful stance, it is possible that other US agencies will follow suit.
“I think the Justice is likely to be looking at the possibility that the Department has already committed to prosecuting some sort of person in this case,” says Coletto.
“And there are a number cases in which the DOJ has actually brought criminal prosecutions against people who have leaked classified information, including the former National Security Agency chief, Edward Snowden.”
The US is not alone in trying to curb leaks of sensitive information.
In 2016, the European Parliament and the Council of Europe passed resolutions calling for transparency on the handling of national security leaks.
And in September, the United Kingdom announced that it will start a system of “post-lapsarianism” with a system where whistleblowers who have been arrested and prosecuted will be granted amnesty and have access in future to their files.