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, three 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 some professional staffers from seeing memos being prepared for the new president.
And at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), some officials told Reuters they believe a search 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.
Washington career civil servants say the clampdown appears designed to try to limit the flow of information inside and outside government agencies charged with foreign policy and national security and to deter officials from talking to the media about topics that could result in negative stories.
The White House did not immediately comment on Friday about why it is trying to crack down on leaks.
Trump, who has been infuriated by some news reports of government dysfunction, has expressed his intention to prevent unauthorized disclosures to the media.
“We’re going to find the leakers. They’re going to pay a big price for leaking,” he said in response to a reporter’s question during a meeting with lawmakers on Feb. 16. At a news conference the same day, Trump said he had asked the Department of Justice to look into leaks of “classified information that was given illegally” to journalists regarding contacts between some of his aides and Russian officials.
Several officials in different government 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. Reuters has no independent evidence of this happening.
In another 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.
Trump said later he supported Spicer. He added “I would have handled it differently than Sean. But Sean handles it his way and I’m OK with it,” he said in an interview with Fox News.
On Friday, Spicer did not respond to requests for comment on his reasons for demanding the phones from his staff.
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 discussed.”
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 new.
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. He said it is rare to learn about an administration’s internal efforts to impose message discipline.
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.
“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, three officials there said.
They said some officials fear phone calls and emails are being monitored to try to find who leaked the draft intelligence report to the Associated Press. Reuters has no independent evidence that this is the case.
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 terrorist threat.”
The DHS did not respond to several requests for comment.
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 have input, several current and former officials said.
Under a change made after Trump took office, staffers now 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 a stake in any given issue and may not share the drafts widely enough.
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. He said restricting access to information adds friction to the decision-making process and predicted that “inferior policy decisions are a likely result.”
Spicer did not immediately comment on Friday on whether the new procedure might harm policy-making.
An 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.
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.”
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