Earlier today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions held a press conference to announce that four people face charges for leaking classified information while other investigations have intensified. From Fox News:

Session [sic] said criminals who have leaked classified information are “being investigated and will be prosecuted.” He added that four people have already been charged with leaking classified material and related counts, and investigations have tripled.

Sessions said he has directed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and new FBI Director Christopher Wray to oversee all classified leak investigations and actively monitor the progress.

He said a new counterintelligence unit has been created to manage cases, and he has directed the National Security Division and U.S. attorneys to prioritize cases involving unauthorized disclosures.

Sessions stated that the “culture of leaking must stop,” but it goes beyond those in the government leaking the information. He said the department will begin to review “its policy related to subpoenaing the media when leaks are published.” From CBS News:

“I have listened to career investigators and prosecutors about how to most successfully investigate and prosecute these matters,” Sessions said. “At their suggestion, one of the things we are doing is reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas. We respect the important role that the press plays and will give them respect, but it is not unlimited. 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.”

But Sessions — despite suggesting the Justice Department may pursue media outlets with legal action — took no questions from the press after he had concluded his remarks, leaving frustrated reporters with unanswered questions.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats also had a warning:

“For those out there who may be listening or watching these announcements … if you improperly disclose classified information, we will find you,” Coats said. “We will investigate you. We will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law, and you will not be happy with the result.”

Protection for Journalists?

Washington, D.C., and 49 other states have shield laws that protect a reporter from giving up confidential sources. There is no federal shield law at the federal level, though.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder had guidelines on how to obtain “information from members of the media.” Holder promised in 2013 that “he would ‘not prosecute any reporter’ for doing their jobs.”

However, former President Barack Obama’s administration saw nine prosecutors bring “charges in nine cases – more than all previous administrations combined.”

USA Today noted that a media advisory group formed during the administration after actions had been taken “against reporters and new organizations in pursuit of leak investigations.”

Back in 2013, The Washington Post‘s editorial board even wrote an op-ed to explain why those moves prove journalists need a federal shield law:

SOME GOVERNMENT secrets should remain under wraps. Many others are kept out of view for poor reasons, including extreme caution, rote classification habits and a lack of recognition that withholding information from the public should be an extraordinary practice. One crucial job of a journalist is to look where she is not supposed to, serve as an advocate for the public’s right to know and disseminate information that people should see. Revelations about government misconduct, bureaucratic incompetence and undisclosed programs worthy of public debate are the result.

When the Obama administration wages an aggressive campaign against leaks or, as in previous administrations, journalists are threatened with or sent to jail because they refuse to give up their sources, people think twice about talking, and reporters are deterred from pursuing their mission. It’s long past time for Congress to pass a law protecting journalists from being forced to disclose information about the sources, methods and content of their reporting to the government.