By Hunter Frint
There are several stark contrasts between this presidency and the last — a fact no one would dispute. But beyond the apparently different political opinions and governing styles of Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump, there is a similarity: Both have reacted strongly to information leaks, even if their responses differed.
“Perhaps predictably, Trump is a lot more public with his frustrations over leaks,” said Scott Lasley, political science department head at Western Kentucky University.
Trump has publicly and continually condemned the leaks from within his White House, but Lasley said Obama was also quite aggressive in his war on leaks. In fact, the former president was known for cracking down on them.
Obama’s way of dealing with leaks was severe enough that he received criticism from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which claimed this deterred government officials from speaking to reporters.
“U.S. President Barack Obama came into office pledging open government, but he has fallen short of his promise,” CPJ said in 2013. “Aggressive prosecution of leakers of classified information and broad electronic surveillance programs deter government sources from speaking to journalists.”
The “broad electronic surveillance programs” the CPJ referred to was the seizing of journalists’ phone records by federal officials in 2013. According to the New York Times, officials secretly confiscated two months’ worth of Associated Press reporters’ and editors’ phone records.
Another example of Obama’s strict handling of leaks is seen in his use of the Espionage Act against leakers. According to Politifact, the act has been used 11 times since charges against Daniel Ellsberg for the release of the Pentagon Papers were dismissed in May 1973. Of those 11 times, eight took place under the Obama Administration.
In August, Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in a press conference that the Justice Department had more than tripled their active leak investigations during the Trump administration, compared to the number of open investigations when Obama left office.
“Referrals for investigations of classified leaks to the Department of Justice from our intelligence agencies have exploded,” Sessions said at the August press conference. “In the first six months of this administration, DOJ has already received nearly as many criminal referrals involving unauthorized disclosures of classified information as we received in the last three years combined.”
Trump’s reactions to these leaks can usually be found on Twitter.
On Jan. 10, BuzzFeed News published a leaked dossier and an article explaining the claims that Russia had compiled damaging information about Trump. BuzzFeed reported that the information was, in fact, unverified, but thought the public had a right to know. It was stated that the dossier was possibly leaked by a “former British intelligence agent.”
In reaction, Trump took a shot at the leaker and the media:
On Jan. 25, The New York Times reported that a draft of an executive order had been leaked to them. They relayed that this draft, which described the possibility of reopening C.I.A. “black site” prisons, was “clearly not for public consumption. The most startling information reported by the New York Times was that although Trump did not specifically call for the revival of torture for terrorism suspects, it “hovers over in its direction.”
Trump’s reaction to this was a demand for an apology:
In a press release in May, Trump described the “alleged leaks” that were coming out of government agencies as “deeply troubling”.
“These leaks have been going on for a long time and my Administration will get to the bottom of this,” Trump said. “The leaks of sensitive information pose a grave threat to our national security.”
His administration has started a crackdown on these leaks of information though. And as this presidential term presses on, it will be interesting to see whether the leaks continue their strong flow from the White House, or if the administration will put a stop to them.
“Leaks are a constant challenge that presidents have to deal with,” Lasley said. “There is a long history of presidential frustration over leaks. It is also a practice that is difficult to stop.”