A watchdog group that monitors the intelligence community has determined, using data from the Department of Justice, that Donald Trump is correct when he complains about his administration’s leaks to the press: the number of leaks of classified information reached record highs over the last two years.
The number of leaks that were reported as potential crimes by federal agencies reached record high levels over the last two years, according to data released by the Justice Department last week and reported Monday by the Federation of American Scientists, which monitors the intelligence community.
There were 120 leak referrals for possible prosecution in 2017 and 88 in 2018, up from 37 in 2016 and 18 in 2015, the data shows. Only a small percentage of the cases are likely to be prosecuted.
Steven Aftergood, who directs the federation’s Project on Government Secrecy, says the uptick is almost certainly due to the fact that under Trump, there is a lot more leaking going on. There has also been a renewed focus by the Justice Department in ferreting out leakers.
“I think it’s because there are more leaks,” said Aftergood, who publishes a weekly newsletter on secrecy. “Agencies have been serious about leaks forever—it’s not like they decided, ‘oh we’re going to suddenly start paying attention to this.’ So the fact that it has escalated so sharply indicates that there is something qualitatively different.”
Trump has been complaining about leaks since almost the beginning of his time in office, calling leakers traitors and the leaks themselves, “massive over exaggeration[s] put out by the Fake News Media”.
His administration has been plagued with leaks, not only of the petty, rivalrous type but leaks of serious information that constitute criminal behavior. There was the NSA contractor taking documents home; the Georgia NSA employee who sits in prison for giving information about Russia election interference to the media; and of course, Edward Snowden’s massive leak of thousands upon thousands of NSA documents.
Aftergood and other experts believe discipline about classified information has been diminishing. Trusted, cleared individuals at the CIA and the National Security Agency, including Edward Snowden, have disclosed a raft of secrets in recent years, and that phenomenon continues.
Two examples include the leaking of transcripts of Trump’s phone calls with foreign leaders to the Washington Post, and the disclosures about irregularities in the way the White House processed Jared Kushner’s security clearance to NBC News. It’s not clear whether either case was referred to the Justice Department by a federal agency, although Republican Devin Nunes, then chairman of the intelligence committee, said he filed his own referral on the transcripts.
“In some cases, these are not leaks from deep in the military bureaucracy — they’re right out of the oval office, and that’s pretty much unheard of,” Aftergood said.
The Trump administration has averaged 104 leak referrals per year. The Obama Administration (2009-2016) only saw 39 criminal referrals for leaks per year, the federation found.
In 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions created a new unit within the FBI to handle what he called a “staggering” number of leaks.
“We respect the role that the press plays … but it is not unlimited,” Sessions said said at the time the new unit was created.