The real story turns out to be SURVEILLANCE and LEAKING! Find the leakers.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 2, 2017
Trump is far from matching the total number of leak arrests of President Barack Obama — who rarely talked publicly about leakers until subpoenas were dropped and arrests were made.
What's the key difference between how Obama and Trump have gone after leakers?
Experts on executive-branch leaks say it's too early to gauge Trump's legacy. But much has been made about the Obama administration's hunt for leakers. Of the 13 people who have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act for leaking secrets, eight were arrested under Obama's administration, according to Alexandra Ellerbeck, senior Americas and U.S. researcher with the Committee to Protect Journalists.
And prosecutors under Obama have spied on journalists and named a journalist an “unindicted co-conspirator,” according to the New York Times. Ellerbeck said that's just a step away from arresting a reporter for writing a story — and raises dangerous constitutional issues about freedom of the press.
But Obama, who ran on a platform of open and transparent government, has defended the arrest of suspected leakers, saying his administration had gone after “a really small sample.”
“Some of them are serious, where you had purposeful leaks of information that could harm or threaten operations or individuals who were in the field involved with really sensitive national security issues,” Obama said in an interview with the Rutgers University student newspaper.
Trump, on the other hand, has publicly shown less verbal restraint, stressing the need to “find the leakers.”
The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security "leakers" that have permeated our government for a long time. They can't even......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2017
The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be caught!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 16, 2017
I have been asking Director Comey & others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017
Those tweets came during a two-week stretch of leaks to the press, according to The Washington Post's Callum Borchers, who catalogued nine of them.
“Obama was furious over leaks, but his fury was directed internally,” said David Pozen, a constitutional law professor at Columbia University who specializes in national security law.
“What distinguishes Trump is that he is directing his [anger] to the public. What is the point of complaining about leaks in a public tweet? He can call up the attorney general at any moment of the day or night. … He’s the chief executive and he has powerful investigative tools at his disposal. Twitter is not one of the tools.”
Why were so many alleged leakers arrested under Obama?
Steven Aftergood, who directs the Federation of American Scientists' project on government secrecy, told The Post that investigators under Obama had a technological edge over leakers.
Historically, leaking government secrets “has been a hard crime to prove and to prosecute,” he said. “What has happened in the last couple of decades is that contacts between leakers and the press are easier than ever to trace because of the electronic footprints that are left by their communication.”
Politics also played into Obama's decision to go after leakers, Pozen said. George W. Bush, Obama's predecessor, had been accused of politicizing leak investigations, a claim Obama wanted to avoid.
“Obama was really wanting to put a wall between himself and his investigating agencies,” Pozen said. “And so left to their own devices, you got this uptick. And it wasn’t until the end of the Obama first term that you saw the president kind of rein them in.”
How have leak arrests affected the country?
For Obama, arresting actual leakers dampened people's desire to disclose confidential information.
Mark Mazzetti, an investigative reporter who covers national security for the New York Times, talked to The Post's Greg Sargent about the effect of Obama's leak investigations.
“There’s no question that this has a chilling effect,” Mazzetti told Sargent in 2013. “People who have talked in the past are less willing to talk now. Everyone is worried about communication and how to communicate, and is there any method of communication that is not being monitored. It’s got people on both sides — the reporter and source side — pretty concerned.
“It certainly seems like they’re being very serious about hunting down people talking to reporters.”
Trump's approach to leaks has had the opposite effect, experts say.
In 2017, Politico's Jack Shafer wrote, Trump has found it nearly impossible to plug leaks.
“As Trump shuts down White House access to reporters, they will infest the departments and agencies around town that the president has peeved. The intelligence establishment, which Trump has deprecated over the issue of Russian hacking, owes him no favors and less respect. It will be in their institutional interest to leak damaging material on Trump.”
What effect do leaker arrests under Obama have on Trump's administration?
Investigators under Obama didn't arrest an alleged leaker until he'd been president for nearly a year. Trump's administration arrested someone five months in, moving at about double the pace.
What's more, Pozen said, investigators have the technological tools and political green light to continue to be aggressive about leakers.
There's no sign that Trump will ask them to slow down, Ellerbeck said.
“Trump seems to delight in making these accusations about prosecuting leakers. And the rhetoric extends to journalists. He’s tweeted at least a dozen times saying that he’s going after journalists.”