Exclusive: Trump aides' bid to plug leaks
fuels government paranoia - sources
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[March 03, 2017]
By Arshad Mohammed, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald
Trump's Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin used his first senior staff
meeting last month to tell his new aides he would not tolerate leaks to
the news media, sources familiar with the matter said.
Current and former officials said that in a departure from past
practice, access to a classified computer system at the White House has
been tightened by political appointees to prevent professional staffers
from seeing memos being prepared for the new president.
And at the Department of Homeland Security, some officials told Reuters
they fear a witch hunt is under way for the leaker of a draft
intelligence report which found little evidence that citizens of seven
Muslim-majority countries covered by Trump's now-suspended travel ban
pose a threat to the United States.
The clampdown has fueled paranoia among Washington career civil servants
who say it appears designed to try to limit the flow of information
inside and outside government and deter officials from talking to the
media about topics that could result in negative stories.
Some reports of government dysfunction have infuriated Trump just weeks
into his presidency. Trump has described media outlets as "lying",
"corrupt", "failing" and "the enemy of the American people."
At a Feb. 16 news conference, Trump said: "The leaks are absolutely
real. The news is fake" and that he had asked the Department of Justice
to look into leaks of "classified information that was given illegally"
to journalists regarding the relationship between his aides and Russia.
Several officials in different agencies who spoke to Reuters on
condition of anonymity said some employees fear their phone calls and
emails may be monitored and that they are reluctant to speak their minds
during internal discussions.
In addition, the sources say that limits imposed on the flow of
information have blindsided cabinet-level officials on some major issues
and led to uncertainty among foreign governments about U.S. policy.
In perhaps the most trenchant effort to deter leaks, White House
spokesman Sean Spicer demanded that some aides there surrender their
phones so they could be checked for calls or texts to reporters,
Politico reported on Sunday.
Word of the inspection quickly leaked.
EFFORTS TO PLUG LEAKS NOT NEW
Two sources familiar with Mnuchin's first meeting with senior Treasury
staff said he told them that their telephone calls and emails could be
monitored to prevent leaks. One of the sources said that staff were told
that monitoring could become policy.
Asked about Mnuchin's comments to his senior staff, a Treasury spokesman
said: "Secretary Mnuchin had a discussion with staff about confidential
information not being shared with the media nor any other sources. In
the course of that conversation, the idea of checking phones was not
Asked in a follow-up email whether Mnuchin had raised the possibility of
monitoring phones or emails as a matter of policy, the Treasury
spokesman replied: "It was not discussed."
Attempts by Republican and Democratic presidents to limit leaks are not
During Republican Richard Nixon's administration, the FBI wiretapped
White House aides and journalists. Trump's predecessor, Democrat Barack
Obama, aggressively pursued leaks to try to "control the narrative," as
White House aides put it.
New York Times reporter James Risen, whose articles led to
investigations of leaks, said the Obama administration prosecuted nine
cases involving whistleblowers and leakers, compared with three by all
previous administrations combined.
Leonard Downie, a former executive editor of the Washington Post, said
it was too early to make historical comparisons, and that it is rare to
learn about an administration's internal efforts to impose message
'CLIMATE OF INTIMIDATION'
At the State Department, the fear of getting caught in a leak
investigation or running afoul of White House positions is so acute that
some officials will discuss issues only face-to-face rather than use
phones, email, texts or other messaging applications, two State
Department officials said.
"There is a climate of intimidation, not just about talking to
reporters, but also about communicating with colleagues," said one
official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner did not respond directly to
the officials' statements but said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
aimed to foster an open climate where new ideas are raised and
considered on their merits.
[to top of second column]
White House Director of Oval Office Operations Keith Schiller
carries a red USA hat and a copy of Fortune magazine with President
Trump on the cover as he and Communications Director Sean Spicer
deplane from Air Force One yesterday. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
"There does have to be some degree of trust among colleagues in
order to have those kinds of conversations," Toner said.
There also is high anxiety in parts of DHS, officials there said.
"The atmosphere has become toxic, and that is not conducive to the
work," said a DHS official on condition of anonymity.
They said officials fear phone calls and emails are being monitored
to try to find who leaked the draft intelligence report to the
The report found that being a citizen of countries covered by
Trump's Jan. 27 temporary immigration ban - Iran, Iraq, Libya,
Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen - was "an unreliable indicator of
The Homeland Security Department did not respond to three requests
Some examples of how the administration is trying to limit the flow
of information are relatively subtle, but significant.
Before Trump's Jan. 20 inauguration, National Security Council
officials drafting memos, or "packages," for the president on a
classified computer system could choose other officials who should
Under a change made after Trump took office, staffers cannot choose
who may see and edit a memo. Instead, access is approved by the
office of the NSC executive secretary, retired Army lieutenant
general Keith Kellogg.
Asked about the new restrictions, National Security Council
spokesman Michael Anton said: "President Trump takes very seriously
the criminal release of classified information critical to U.S.
national security. Access procedures are designed to ensure that
appropriate personnel see material relevant to their duties, while
protecting sensitive information."
One U.S. official called the new system "inefficient," saying
Kellogg's office may not know who has "equities" in a given issue
and may not share the drafts widely enough.
Another administration official said the White House changed the
access procedures about a month ago in reaction to leaks of the
contents of Trump's conversations with the president of Mexico and
the prime minister of Australia.
"It was changed in response to two very significant leaks," said the
administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This
was a reactive move on the NSCís part."
Asked if the change had made the NSC less efficient, this official
replied: "No, because we are being conscientious about ensuring that
all relevant staff members and experts are included on materials
that they need to see."
Steven Aftergood of the nonprofit Federation of American Scientists'
Project on Government Secrecy, which works to limit official
secrecy, said the policy change suggested the White House wants to
tighten control over internal deliberations.
"Why would it do that? Perhaps in order to discourage leaks. Or
perhaps it lacks confidence and trust in the existing NSC staff,"
said Aftergood. "From a management perspective, this move seems like
"Restricting information workflow this way adds friction to the
deliberative process, making it more cumbersome and less
responsive," he added. "Inferior policy decisions are a likely
(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel
Additional reporting by John Walcott, Julia Edwards Ainsley, Steve
Holland, David Lawder and Yeganeh Torbati; Writing by Arshad
Mohammed; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Grant McCool)
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