Administrative Subpoenas for Leak Investigations?

The possibility of using subpoenas to compel testimony from reporters or others in leak investigations outside of a criminal prosecution is being floated by the Intelligence Community Inspector General.

But such authority would have to be granted legislatively, and so far there is no sign that Congress is considering doing so.

The government’s interest in using administrative subpoenas was mentioned in the latest semi-annual report of the IC Inspector General:

 “In March 2019, [IC] Inspector General Atkinson and the Inspector General of the Department of Justice met a second time with the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board to discuss, among other things, legislative approaches to reduce unauthorized disclosures, including testimonial subpoena authority for OIGs to compel non-agency individuals to provide testimony in administrative investigations.” (page 19)

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Administrative investigations of leaks may occur before a criminal proceeding has been initiated, or after the Justice Department has declined criminal prosecution, as it often does. (In 2017-2018 there were over 200 referrals to the Justice Department of suspected criminal leaks, but only a handful of actual prosecutions ensued.)

As an alternative to criminal prosecution, administrative investigations can result in punishment of suspected leakers in the form of loss of security clearance, termination of employment, or monetary penalties.

In a criminal case, prosecutors can subpoena witnesses such as reporters and seek to compel their testimony. In the case of accused leaker Jeffrey Sterling, an appeals court concluded in a 2013 opinion that the government was within its rights to subpoena reporter James Risen. Although Risen did not ultimately testify in that case, the ruling authorizing a subpoena for a reporter in such circumstances remains in place after the US Supreme Court declined to review it.

But in internal administrative leak investigations, subpoena authority is not currently available (outside of espionage investigations involving a foreign power). It is this power which the IC Inspector General has now raised for discussion.

Leaks of Classified Info Surge Under Trump

The number of leaks of classified information reported as potential crimes by federal agencies reached record high levels during the first two years of the Trump Administration, according to data released by the Justice Department last week.

Agencies transmitted 120 leak referrals to the Justice Department in 2017, and 88 leak referrals in 2018, for an average of 104 per year. By comparison, the average number of leak referrals during the Obama Administration (20092016) was 39 per year.


There are a “staggering number of leaks,” then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at an August 4, 2017 briefing about efforts to prevent the unauthorized disclosures.

“Referrals for investigations of classified leaks to the Department of Justice from our intelligence agencies have exploded,” AG Sessions said at that time. He outlined several steps that the Administration would take to combat leaks of classified information, including tripling the number of active leak investigations by the FBI.

“We had about nine open investigations of classified leaks in the last 3 years,” he told the House Judiciary Committee at a November 2017 hearing. “We have 27 investigations open today.” (Some of those investigations pertain to leaks that occurred before President Trump took office.)

“We intend to get to the bottom of these leaks. I think it reached—has reached epidemic proportions. It cannot be allowed to continue,” Sessions said then, “and we will do our best effort to ensure that it does not continue.”

But it has continued. Despite preventive efforts, the 2018 total of 88 leak referrals was still higher than any reported pre-Trump figure. (The previous high in recent decades had been 55 referrals in 2013 and in 2007. The lowest was 18 in 2015.)

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Not all leaks of classified information generate such criminal referrals. Disclosures that are inadvertent, insignificant, or officially authorized would not be reported to the Justice Department as suspected crimes.

Meanwhile, only a fraction of the classified leaks that are reported by agencies ever result in an investigation, and only a portion of those lead to identification of a suspect and even fewer to a prosecution.

“While DOJ and the FBI receive numerous media leak referrals each year, the FBI opens only a limited number of investigations based on these referrals,” the FBI told Congress in 2009. “In most cases, the information included in the referral is not adequate to initiate an investigation.”

The newly released aggregate data on classified leak referrals serve as a reminder that leaks of classified information are a “normal,” predictable occurrence. There is not a single year in the past decade and a half for which data are available when there were no such criminal referrals.

But the data as released leave several questions unanswered. They do not reveal how many of the referrals actually triggered an FBI investigation. They do not indicate whether the leaks are evenly distributed across the national security bureaucracy or concentrated in one or more “problem” agencies (or congressional committees). And they do not distinguish between leaks that simply “hurt our country,” as the Attorney General put it, and those that are complicated by a significant public interest in the information that was disclosed.

A Leak Prosecution That Didn’t Happen

Government prosecutors have been aggressively pursuing suspected leakers of classified information:

Reality Winner, accused of disclosing a document “information relating to the national defense” to a news outlet, changed her plea this week from “not guilty” to “guilty.”

Former FBI agent Terry J. Albury likewise pleaded guilty last April to unauthorized retention and disclosure of national defense information.

Former Senate Intelligence Committee security officer James A. Wolfe was indicted this month for allegedly lying to the FBI in the course of a leak investigation.

And also this month, Joshua Adam Schulte was indicted for allegedly disclosing national defense information to a certain “organization that purports to publicly disseminate classified, sensitive, and confidential information.”

But not every leak results in an official leak investigation. And not every leak investigation produces a suspect. Nor is every leak suspect prosecuted.

In its latest semi-annual report, the Office of the Intelligence Community Inspector General describes one recent case of an acknowledged leaker of classified information who was allowed to resign without prosecution.

The IC Inspector General “substantiated allegations that an ODNI cadre officer disclosed classified information without authorization, transmitted classified information via unauthorized means, and disclosed classified information to persons not authorized to receive it.”

“During a voluntary interview, the ODNI cadre officer admitted to transmitting classified information over unclassified (internet) email to recipients not authorized to receive classified national security information.”

But the matter was resolved outside of the criminal justice system.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia declined prosecution. The officer, who was retirement eligible, retired before termination,” the IC IG report said.

No other details about the episode were disclosed. But the case illustrates that a variety of responses to leak incidents are available to the government short of criminal prosecution.

A House bill to authorize intelligence spending for FY 18 and 19 (HR 6237), introduced yesterday, would require expanded reporting to Congress on unauthorized disclosures of classified information.

USA v. Terry Albury: A Guilty Plea

The second prosecution of an accused leaker in the Trump Administration (after Reality Winner) will yield the first conviction. Former FBI special agent Terry J. Albury pleaded guilty this week to unlawful disclosure and retention of national defense information, each of which is a felony under the Espionage Act statutes.

The plea agreement, signed by the defendant, outlines the facts of the case and sets the stage for sentencing.

“Terry Albury betrayed the trust bestowed upon him by the United States,” said U.S. Attorney Tracy Doherty-McCormick in an April 17 news release.  “Today’s guilty plea should serve as a reminder to those who are entrusted with classified information that the Justice Department will hold them accountable.”

But Albury’s attorneys said that his actions were those of a whistleblower. “His conduct in this case was an act of conscience. It was driven by his belief that there was no viable alternative to remedy the abuses he sought to address. He recognizes that what he did was unlawful and accepts full responsibility for his conduct,” they said in a statement quoted in Politico.

Under the terms of the plea agreement, “The defendant waives all rights to obtain, directly or through others, information about the investigation and prosecution of this case under the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act of 1974.”

USA v. Terry Albury: The Second Trump-Era Leak Case

FBI agent Terry J. Albury was charged last week with two violations of the Espionage Act statutes for disclosing classified information to a reporter for the Intercept. The charges, including unauthorized disclosure and unauthorized retention of national defense information, were formally presented by the Justice Department in a March 27 “Information.”

See also “Minneapolis FBI agent charged with leaking classified information to reporter” by Mukhtar M. Ibrahim, MPR News, March 28.

The Albury case is the second criminal prosecution in the Trump Administration arising from a leak of classified information to the news media. The first was the pending case of Reality Winner.

DNI Updates Policy on Classified Leaks

Director of National Intelligence Daniel R. Coats last month issued a newly revised directive that details intelligence community procedures for dealing with leaks of classified information. See Unauthorized Disclosures of Classified National Security Information, Intelligence Community Directive 701, December 22, 2017.

The directive formalizes several notable developments in intelligence policy regarding leaks:

*    It presents an expansive definition of an unauthorized disclosure that includes not simply disclosure but also the “confirmation” or “acknowledgement” of classified information to an unauthorized person.

*    It mandates the use of “audits and systems monitoring” in order “to detect and attribute attempts to bypass or defeat security safeguards.”

*    It specifies that polygraph examinations used by intelligence agencies shall “address the issue of unauthorized disclosures of classified information” as part of the security vetting process.

*    It notes that the DNI may prohibit the IC Inspector General from investigating a leak, pursuant to 50 USC 3033(f), “if the Director determines that such prohibition is necessary to protect vital national security interests of the United States.” The DNI is obliged to notify the congressional intelligence committees if he ever exercises this authority.

The new directive defines a hierarchy of unauthorized disclosures based on their severity and the feasibility of investigating and prosecuting them. “This process is designed to identify which incidents can be closed without further review, which call for an internal investigation, and which should be referred [to the Department of Justice] with a request for a criminal investigation.”

The directive updates and expands the provisions of a prior version that was issued in 2007 by then-DNI Mike McConnell.

Army Operations: The New Operational Environment

Other nations, including current and potential adversaries, possess military capabilities that now match or exceed those of the United States, according to a new US Army doctrinal publication.

“Today’s operational environment presents threats to the Army and joint force that are significantly more dangerous in terms of capability and magnitude than those we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. Major regional powers like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are actively seeking to gain strategic positional advantage. These nations, and other adversaries, are fielding capabilities to deny long-held U.S. freedom of action in the air, land, maritime, space, and cyberspace domains and reduce U.S. influence in critical areas of the world.”

“In some contexts they already have overmatch or parity, a challenge the joint force has not faced in twenty-five years.”

That assessment appears in the Foreword to the newly updated US Army Field Manual 3.0 on Operations that was officially released today.

The Field Manual describes the conduct of operations in the new environment, with notably new material on the cyber and space domains.

“Threat operations [by adversaries] in cyberspace are often less encumbered by treaty, law, and policy restrictions than those imposed on U.S. forces, which may allow adversaries or enemies an initial advantage,” the manual states.

The unclassified field manual was released along with two supporting volumes:

ADP 3-0. Operations, Army Doctrine Publication, October 2017, and

ADRP 3-0. Operations, Army Doctrine Reference Publication, October 2017

Last week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis issued a memorandum to all military personnel and DoD employees warning against leaks of classified or otherwise restricted defense information.

“It is a violation of our oath to divulge, in any fashion, non-public DoD information, classified or unclassified, to anyone without the required security clearance as well as a specific need to know in performance of their duties,” he wrote. A copy of the memo was obtained by Military Times. (A security clearance is not required for unclassified information.)

Yet also last week, Secretary Mattis himself disclosed new information that about US rules of engagement that is normally not published, the New York Times reported. A Pentagon spokesman denied that the disclosure would place US forces at risk, or help the enemy. See “Mattis Discloses Part of Afghanistan Battle Plan, but It Hasn’t Yet Been Carried Out” by Thomas Gibbons-Neff, October 6.

Legality of Presidential Disclosures, Continued

“There is no basis” for suggesting that President Trump’s disclosure of classified intelligence to Russian officials was illegal, wrote Morton Halperin this week.

To the contrary, “senior U.S. government officials in conversations with foreign officials decide on a daily basis to provide them with information that is properly classified and that will remain classified,” wrote Halperin, who is himself a former senior official.

“We should not let our desire to confront President Trump lead us to espouse positions that violate his rights and that would constrain future presidents in inappropriate ways.” See “Trump’s Disclosure Did Not Break the Law” by Morton H. Halperin, Just Security, May 23, 2017.

But constraints on presidential disclosure were on the minds of Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-FL) and 17 House colleagues. They introduced legislation on May 24 “that would require the President to notify the intelligence committees when a U.S. official, including the President, intentionally or inadvertently discloses top-secret information to a nation that sponsors terrorism or, like Russia, is subject to U.S. sanctions.”

Yesterday, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) introduced a bill “to ensure that a mitigation process and protocols are in place in the case of a disclosure of classified information by the President.”

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) and five colleagues introduced a resolution “disapproving of the irresponsible actions and negligence of President Trump which may have caused grave harm to United States national security.”

For related background, see The Protection of Classified Information: The Legal Framework, Congressional Research Service, updated May 18, 2017, and Criminal Prohibitions on Leaks and Other Disclosures of Classified Defense Information, Congressional Research Service, updated March 7, 2017.

Legality of the Trump Disclosures, Revisited

When President Trump disclosed classified intelligence information to Russian officials last week, did he commit a crime?

Considering that the President is the author of the national security classification system, and that he is empowered to determine who gets access to classified information, it seems obvious that the answer is No. His action might have been reckless, I opined previously, but it was not a crime.

Yet there is more to it than that.

The Congressional Research Service considered the question and concluded as follows in a report issued yesterday:

“It appears more likely than not that the President is presumed to have the authority to disclose classified information to foreign agents in keeping with his power and responsibility to advance U.S. national security interests.” See Presidential Authority to Permit Access to National Security Information, CRS Legal Sidebar, May 17, 2017.

This tentative, rather strained formulation by CRS legislative attorneys indicates that the question is not entirely settled, and that the answer is not necessarily obvious or categorical.

And the phrase “in keeping with his power and responsibility to advance U.S. national security interests” adds an important qualification. If the president were acting on some other agenda than the U.S. national interest, then the legitimacy of his disclosure could evaporate. If the president were on Putin’s payroll, as the House majority leader lamely joked last year, and had engaged in espionage, he would not be beyond the reach of the law.

Outlandish hypotheticals aside, it still seems fairly clear that the Trump disclosures last week are not a matter for the criminal justice system, though they may reverberate through public opinion and congressional deliberations in a consequential way.

But several legal experts this week insisted that it’s more complicated, and that it remains conceivable that Trump broke the law. See:

“Don’t Be So Quick to Call Those Disclosures ‘Legal'” by Elizabeth Goitein, Just Security, May 17, 2017

“Why Trump’s Disclosure to Russia (and Urging Comey to Drop the Flynn Investigation, and Various Other Actions) Could Be Unlawful” by Marty Lederman and David Pozen, Just Security, May 17, 2017

“Trump’s disclosures to the Russians might actually have been illegal” by Steve Vladeck, Washington Post, May 16, 2017

Update, 05/23/17: But see also Trump’s Disclosure Did Not Break the Law by Morton Halperin, Just Security, May 23, 2017.

37 Leak Cases Were Reported to Dept of Justice in 2016

Executive branch agencies submitted 37 “crimes reports” to the Department of Justice last year regarding leaks of classified information.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, wrote Patricia Matthews of the DOJ National Security Division, “We have conducted a search of the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section.  A records search of that Section indicates that 37 crime reports concerning unauthorized disclosures of classified information were received by DOJ in CY 2016.” (The specific nature of the leaks and the government’s responses to them were not disclosed.)

The 2016 figure is double the number of suspected criminal leak cases reported in 2015. But it is consistent with the average number of leak cases from 2009 to 2015, which is 39.7.

What makes the latest number of reported leaks interesting is not that it deviates sharply from past experience but that it does not.

Evidently there is a baseline of leakiness that persists even in the face of strenuous official efforts to combat leaks.

President Obama issued executive order 13587 in 2011 to improve safeguarding of classified information. He issued a National Insider Threat Policy in 2012, which was intended in part to deter unauthorized disclosures of classified information. The Obama Administration famously prosecuted more suspected leakers than ever before. But after all of that, the annual number of suspected criminal leaks is stable and undiminished.

Among other things, this has implications for security policy. Since leaks continue despite government actions to suppress them, prudent security officers will limit their vulnerability by using classification more selectively, by further reducing the security-cleared population, and by aiming for resilience to unwanted disclosure rather than for perfect secrecy.

“There’s been major crimes committed,” House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) told reporters yesterday, referring to the latest leaks in the Trump Administration. “What I’m concerned about is no one is focusing on major leaks that have occurred here… We can’t run a government like this. A government can’t function with massive leaks at the highest level.”

But the record of the past decade indicates that the government has no alternative but to operate in a leaky environment.

A stronger argument could even be made that some irreducible level of leakiness serves a salutary purpose as a check against misconduct. A perfectly reliable and altogether leak-proof secrecy system would present an irresistibly dangerous temptation to irresponsible political leaders.