Jeff Sessions gets slammed over Justice Department plan to cramp down on leaks

Free-speech advocacy organizations and press-freedom groups on Friday warned the Department of Justice against potentially subpoenaing reporters in investigations of information leaks, after the attorney general said Friday that the department was reviewing its policies on the matter.

In a press conference on Friday announcing new steps to crack down on federal government leaks, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the department was "reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas," saying reporters' abilities to disclose information had to be weighed against national security concerns.

"We respect the important role that the press plays and will give them respect, but it is not unlimited," Sessions said. "They cannot place lives at risk with impunity. We must balance their role with protecting our national security and the lives of those who serve in our intelligence community, the armed forces, and all law-abiding Americans."

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Jeff Sessions through the years

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions pauses at a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, U.S., March 2, 2017.

(REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)

Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama arrives at Trump Tower for meetings with President-elect Donald Trump works from home November 15, 2016. Making the vital choices for President-elect Donald Trump's White House cabinet has sparked intense infighting, CNN reported Monday, with one source calling it a 'knife fight.' The jobs to be filled include national security positions and West Wing posts, the television news network said, as Trump gathered with transition team members in New York.

(TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

President-elect Donald Trump greets Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump's picks for attorney general, during a thank you rally in Ladd-Peebles Stadium on December 17, 2016 in Mobile, Alabama. President-elect Trump has been visiting several states that he won, to thank people for their support during the U.S. election.

(Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., right, and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., nominee for attorney general, talk near the Ohio Clock after a meeting in the Capitol, November 30, 2016.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., speaks during a 'USA Thank You Tour 2016' event at the LaddPeebles Stadium in Mobile, AL on Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016.

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Senator Jeff Sessions, attorney general pick for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, right, listens as Senator Charles 'Chuck' Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, speaks during a meeting in Washington, D.C., U.S, on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. Sessions, the 69-year-old, four-term Alabama Republican is a hard-liner on free trade and immigration, arguing that prospective immigrants don't have constitutional protections.

(Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

US President-elect Donald Trump (C) talks with Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (2nd L) and US Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions (L) as he arrives in Mobile, Alabama, for a 'Thank You Tour 2016' rally on December 17, 2016.

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Mike Pence, 2016 Republican vice presidential nominee, left, and Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, gesture during a campaign event for Donald Trump, 2016 Republican presidential nominee, not pictured, in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016. Trump returned to form in Phoenix Wednesday night with a nativist immigration plan definitively ruling out legal status for undocumented immigrants, as well as proposing to build a wall on the southern border of the United States and forcing Mexico to cover the cost.

(Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

MADISON, AL - FEBRUARY 28: United States Senator Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, beomes the first Senator to endorse Donald Trump for President of the United States at Madison City Stadium on February 28, 2016 in Madison, Alabama.

(Photo by Taylor Hill/WireImage)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)(L) speaks during a Senate Budget Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, February 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee is hearing testimony Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan on President Obamas FY2016 budget request. Also pitcured are (L-R), Chairman Michael Enzi (R-WY), Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Sen. Rob Poertman (R-OH).

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) (2nd L) speaks as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) (L), and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) (R) listen during a news conference September 9, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The legislators discussed on immigration reform during the news conference.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

House Budget Chairman, Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-AL., and members of the House Budget Committee during the House Budget Committee's news conference on the 'Introduction of the FY2013 Budget - Pathway to Prosperity.'

(Photo By Douglas Graham/Roll Call)

Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., left, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, leave the Capitol en route to a news conference to oppose the immigration reform bill in the Senate.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli performs during the National Prayer Breakfast as First Lady Michelle Obama (L), US President Barack Obama (2nd L) and Senator Jeff Sessions (3rd L), R-AL, watch on February 7, 2013 at a hotel in Washington, DC.

(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-AL., talks with Sen. Patty Murray, D-WA., as they make their way to the Senate policy luncheons through the Senate subway in the U.S. Capitol on September 17, 2013.

(Photo By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is interviewed by the press during the weekly Senate policy luncheons. The Senate vote will this afternoon on Obama's small-business tax relief legislation.

(Photo by Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., speaks at the 'Iran Democratic Transition Conference,' hosted by the Institute of World Politics in Capitol Visitor Center. The conference explored the prospects of political change in Iran.

(Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call)

US President Barack Obama (C) signs the Fair Sentencing Act in the Oval Office of the White House, on August 3, 2010 in Washington, DC. The law will aim to correct the disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentencing. Also in the picture (L to R); Attorney General Eric Holder, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Democratic Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas. Previously, people in possession of powder cocaine could carry up to one hundred times more grams than crack offenders and receive the same sentence.

(Photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan (L) shakes hands with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) (R), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, while Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) looks on, after she arrived for the first day of her confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill June 28, 2010 in Washington, DC. Kagan is U.S. President Barack Obama's second Supreme Court nominee since taking office.

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The new co chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Senator Jeff Sessions (D-AL) works in his office on Capitol Hill Tuesday morning May 02, 2009. Sen. Sessions speaks to Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) before visiting with US Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

(The Washington Post via Getty Images)

US President Barack Obama (3rd-R) and Vice President Joe Biden (3rd-L) meet with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (2nd-R) ,D-NV, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (2nd-L),R-KY, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (R) ,D-VT, and Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (L),R-AL, about the upcoming Supreme Court nomination on May 13, 2009 at the White House in Washington, DC.  

(TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) (R) listens as ranking member Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) (L) questions Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor during the second day of her confirmation hearings July 14, 2009 in Washington, DC. Sotomayor faces a full day of questioning from Senators on the committee today. Sotomayor, an appeals court judge and U.S. President Barack Obama's first Supreme Court nominee, will become the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court if confirmed.

(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

US President George W. Bush (L) listens as Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions (R) speaks during a Republican fundraiser for Sessions at the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center in Mobile, Alabama, 21 June 2007.

(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

US President George W. Bush (2R) waves as he stands with First Lady Laura Bush (R), Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions (2L) and his wife Mary (L) after a Republican fundraiser for Sessions at the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center in Mobile, Alabama, 21 June 2007.

(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Baghdad, IRAQ: US Senators Ben Nelson, D-Nebraska, (L) and Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, speak to the media after meeting Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad, 28 April 2007. Maliki told a delegation of visiting US lawmakers today that foreign powers should not try to influence the Iraqi political process. He also resisted calls for his Shiite-led government to rehabilitate former members of ousted Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein's regime. Maliki met a group of US congressmen shortly after their chamber voted for a law calling for a timetable for American troop withdrawal from Iraq.

(KHALID MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, R-AL, (C) speaks with the media as (L-R) U.S. Senator George Allen (R-VA), U.S. Representative David Dreier (R-CA) and U.S. Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) listen at the White House after participating in a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush on March 16, 2006 in Washington, DC. Senators from various states, including U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA), participated in a line item veto legislation meeting.

(Photo by Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images)

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., during a news conference after the Senate took a step Wednesday toward the 'security first' approach to immigration control promoted in the House, paving the way for action on legislation that would require construction of 700 miles of double-layered fencing along segments of the U.S. border with Mexico. Despite Democratic charges that Republicans were moving the bill (HR 6061) to score political points seven weeks before Election Day, the Senate voted 94-0 to limit debate on a motion to proceed to formal consideration of the measure. The bill (HR 6061), which would also authorize a 'virtual fence' of sensors, cameras, unmanned aerial vehicles and other surveillance technology along the entire southwest border, was passed by the House last week. Three more targeted border security and internal immigration enforcement measures are set for House action, possibly as early as Thursday. Frist supported an earlier Senate comprehensive bill that would offer a path to citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants. Sessions did not; he considers that aspect of the bill amnesty.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (L), speaks with U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) during a Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Alberto R. Gonzales January 6, 2005 in Washington, DC. U.S. President George W. Bush has nominated Gonzales to be the U.S. Attorney General.

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., in his office in the Russell Senate Office Building.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Senator-elect Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., talk in the Ohio Clock Corridor during the election meeting for Senate Republican leadership.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

Sen. Jeff Sessions at a hearing to examine 'President Clinton's Eleventh Hour Pardons.'

(Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images)

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Several press-freedom and First Amendment groups immediately condemned the planned moves.

Freedom of the Press Foundation senior reporter Peter Sterne said the DOJ was "explicitly threatening to haul journalists before grand juries and force them to testify about their confidential sources or face jail time."

"Sessions' 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," Sterne said. "That will leave leave all Americans less informed about what the Trump administration is doing behind closed doors."

The American Civil Liberties Union's speech, privacy, and technology director, Ben Wizner, said "Americans should be concerned about the Trump administration's threat to step up its efforts against whistleblowers and journalists."

"Leaders can't be trusted to disclose vital information that reflects poorly on themselves," Wizner said. "The first months of the Trump administration dramatically illustrate that point. Can anyone seriously argue that our country would be better off if the public received all of its information through official channels alone?"

Others criticized Sessions' invocation of national security without citing any specific instances in which leaks endangered American lives.

Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce Brown said current guidelines "reflect a great deal of good-faith discussion" between the news media and the Justice Department.

"The attorney general's intent to revisit the guidelines is deeply troubling as is the frame he put around it today – that reporters are putting lives at risk," Brown said.

"Journalists and news organizations have a long history of handling this information in a responsible way, working with government officials to evaluate potential harms, and taking steps to mitigate any damage when there is an overwhelming public interest in revealing it."

Reporters often publish stories with possible implications for national security. The New York Timessat for a yearon the news that President George W. Bush authorized the National Security Agency to conduct domestic eavesdropping, a decision that some Democrats believe may have help the president win reelection.

Trump isn't the first president to draw the criticism of press freedom groups over the threat of subpoenaing journalists to reveal sources.

The Obama administration also took an aggressive stance toward leaks, monitoringjournalists' phone records and subpoenaing reporters in hopes of forcing them to reveal sources in criminal investigations. The administration eventually relented, however, on one high-profile case in which a New York Times reporter faced the possibility of jail.

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