Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats announced a joint effort Friday, designed to track down and prosecute whoever is leaking classified information to the media, and former federal prosecutor Victoria Toensing says this problem can be addressed by putting the media on notice, limiting the number of people who see key documents and rooting out Obama holdovers from the National Security Council staff.
Toensing also urged caution before jumping to conclusions over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s assembling of a grand jury into the Russia, probe but she fears serious mission creep is afoot and wonders why there still isn’t a grand jury investigating Hillary Clinton over her email scandal or examining the actions of the Clinton Foundation.
The issue of leaks jumped to the forefront again this week, after the Washington Post published classified transcripts of President Trump’s conversations with other world leaders during the first days of his administration.
Toensing says there is clear-cut criminal activity involved.
“It is absolutely prosecutable. It is a leak of classified information. What the Washington Post is doing is effecting President Trump’s ability to do his job, because the Washington Post is absolutely committed to bringing down this presidency,” said Toensing.
“You know ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness,’ their new label, their new motto? Well, democracy dies in fake news in publishing classified information, which provides no news value. What did we learn in the publishing of that transcript? Nothing,” said Toensing.
Toensing says the most important thing to come out of the Sessions-Coats press conference is the warning that journalists will get subpoenaed if necessary to expose those responsible for the leaks. She says they don’t need to be prosecuted to assist an investigation.
“They don’t have to go that far. They can subpoena them and bring them before the grand jury, remember? Patrick Fitzgerald did that in the Scooter Libby-Valerie Plame situation and there hadn’t even been a crime there we all know,” said Toensing, referring to the investigation into the alleged leaking of the identity of a covert CIA operative.
No one was ever charged for the leak, which came from Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Libby was charged with perjury and making false statements.
While bracing for cries of suppressing the free press, Toensing says using reporters to track down leakers is a far cry from how former Attorney General Eric Holder treated the media during the Obama administration.
“They went after 20 [Associated Press] reporters. There was hardly a peep. AP peeped a little but there was not any massive outcry in the press,” said Toensing. “They subpoenaed their phone records from Verizon. AP didn’t even have notice that these subpoenas had taken place,” said Toensing.
“Eric Holder’s people went after James Rosen from Fox News an called him a co-conspirator, a criminal, and he was a flight risk. Look what the Obama administration did without much of a murmur,” said Toensing.
But while that debate plays out, how can the Trump administration zero in those responsible for leaking classified information? Toensing says it starts with tightening the inner circle.
“The Post also said these are notes from staff people and that they are routinely shared with a number of people. I think that ‘routinely shared” has got to stop. They’re going to have to limit the number of people who get these kinds of documents,” said Toensing.
Toensing also urges a detailed numbering system for all classified documents, so that investigators can zero in on what seems to be getting leaked to the media. She says some reporters may go to jail rather than give up their sources, but the government needs to start applying pressure.
“I think the message has to go out there. I think they have to start intimidating some of these people who have just been blatant in providing and publishing classified information,” said Toensing.
She is also frustrated by reports than many staff from the Obama National Security Council are still working there.
“That’s the president’s fault. The president has been told, I know, whom to get rid of. He hasn’t done so and he only has himself to blame,” said Toensing.
But Toensing is also increasingly leery of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster given some of his recent decisions.
“He’s gotten rid of some very excellent NSC staff who seem to be more conservative, like hardliners against Iran, which I thought was a good idea. Evidently, McMaster doesn’t and he’s gotten rid of them,” said Toensing, who is also fuming over McMaster choosing to allow Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice to keep her national security clearance.
“That concerns me. If Susan Rice is talking, she’s lying. That has been her modus operandi throughout the whole Obama administration from Benghazi to Sgt. (Bowe) Bergdahl,” said Toensing. “I have not seen her take on any major issue that she did not provide false statements. So why he stuck up for her I have no idea.”
When it comes to the revelation that Mueller has convened a grand jury over the Russia probe, Toensing is less concerned at least for now. She says a leak may not even be responsible for this news.
“That could or could not be a leak because you could have a witness called before the grand jury or someone who was asked to provide documents who provided that information, and that is not a crime,” said Toensing.
But Toensing is bothered by some aspects, including how the Mueller investigation appears to be delving into areas far afield from the the original focus of the probe. She says the Justice Department should have avoided that problem at the outset.
“It should have been circumscribed by (Deputy Attorney General) Rod Rosenstein. He should have said, ‘For the purpose of investigating Russian collusion only.’ And if investigating only Russian collusion you come across a crime, well then that can be prosecuted. But expanding this to business dealings before Donald Trump even thought about running for president is certainly mission creep,” said Toensing.
Some Trump defenders are alarmed to see several top ranking FBI officials on the apparent witness list for the grand jury, asserting that they are allies of ousted FBI Director James Comey and thus unfair to the president.
“When I was a federal prosecutor, I would bring in federal agents all the time because they’re doing the investigation. We don’t know whether they’d be fact witnesses, which would be one thing, or whether they are coming in because they have done X,Y, and Z and they need to tell the grand jury about their investigation,” said Toensing.
Toensing says assembling a grand jury may be an appropriate move in this case, but she is still puzzled over the FBI’s failure to have one looking into the Hillary Clinton email scandal and for its unusual habit of offering immunity to key figures in exchange for documents.
She says it’s still a good time for a grand jury to look at all questionable activities by the Clintons.
“They should do so now because the foundation has not been examined. There are a lot of new emails now, acquired by Judicial Watch, showing that there was lots of play-for-play back and forth, (such as) million dollars coming in, can you get my friend an ambassadorship,” said Toensing.