Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Wednesday that he is unable to make a “blanket commitment” to not put reporters in jail for doing their jobs.
Sessions was asked the question by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar during a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing.
Klobuchar, a Democrat, asked the question because of the Trump administration’s effort to root out leakers of classified information within the federal government. Free speech advocates have expressed concern that the hunt for leakers will infringe on First Amendment rights of journalists.
“Would you commit to not putting reporters in jail for doing their jobs?” Klobuchar asked Sessions.
“I don’t know that I can make a blanket commitment to that effect,” the former Alabama senator responded.
Sessions noted that the Justice Department has not yet “taken any aggressive action against the media at this point,” but he suggested that the agency is open to prosecuting reporters and their government sources if necessary.
“We have matters that involve the most serious national security issues that put our country at risk. We will utilize the authorities we have legally and constitutionally if we have to. We always try to find an alternative way, as you probably know to directly confronting media persons, but that is not a total blanket,” Sessions said.
In August, Sessions, acting under pressure from President Trump, announced the formation of a task force to root out government leakers. Trump had expressed frustration, and even called out Sessions on Twitter, about the high volume of leaks regarding classified issues involving the White House and Trump administration.
In a press conference announcing the task force, Sessions issued a thinly-veiled warning to the press, saying that “we respect the important role that the press plays and we will give them respect, but it is not unlimited.”
“They cannot place lives at risk with impunity. We must balance the press’ role with protecting national security and the lives of those who serve in the intelligence community and all law-abiding Americans.”
Eric Holder, President Obama’s first attorney general, also faced questions about jailing reporters during his term. Holder’s Justice Department attempted to prosecute New York Times reporter James Risen for publishing classified information provided him by a source.
“I stand by what I have said: If a reporter is doing that which he or she does as a reporter, no reporter is going to go to jail as long as I am attorney general,” Holder said in Oct. 2014 when asked about the Risen case.
Charges against the journalist were later dropped.