Federal employees all across government are learning a lesson this week in the form of new training: do not leak.
The governmentwide campaign against “the unauthorized disclosure of unauthorized information,” as well as “controlled unclassified information,” or CUI, came at the direction of the White House. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster last week sent a directive—subsequently obtained by several media outlets—to all federal agencies demanding they train their employees on the “serious consequences” of improper leaks of such information by Sept. 22.
Agencies are in the process of meeting that deadline. At the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, Donna Vizian, an acting assistant administrator, sent an email to every employee saying their supervisors would contact them regarding the training this week.
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“The White House directed that during the week of September 18th, all federal agencies conduct a one-hour training course for employees on preventing unauthorized disclosures of classified information and CUI,” Vizian wrote in the email obtained by Government Executive. “As federal government employees and federal contractors, we have a responsibility to properly protect this information from unauthorized disclosure.”
A spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council declined to offer any specifics on the training, but defended it as part of President Trump’s larger efforts to crack down on leaks.
“This administration has made it clear that it is going to use all lawful means to confront and deter illegal leaks of sensitive or classified information,” the spokesperson said. “Those who betray their most solemn oath by leaking such information undermine our national security and threaten our public safety."
In an attachment to a follow-up email to EPA employees, the agency reminded its workers of their right to make lawful disclosures. It noted their rights under the 2012 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act and encouraged workers to call the inspector general about any concerns.
EPA cited three types of unauthorized disclosures: espionage, hacks and leaks. The first type would involve using spies to obtain information on behalf of a foreign government; the second, accessing a computer system without proper authorization; and the third, improperly sending information to the media. The agency detailed the people with whom employees can share classified information and where they can discuss it, as well as the potential consequences of violating those rules.
“Those penalties range from withdrawal of the security clearance to imprisonment,” EPA wrote.
Trump has repeatedly decried leaks coming from his administration and criticized the Justice Department for not sufficiently punishing those responsible. He has taken to Twitter to promote theories that “Obama holdovers” in the federal ranks—which Trump allies have labeled the “deep state”—have leaked to the media to undermine his agenda. Attorney General Jeff Sessions subsequently announced the number of investigations into unlawful disclosures has tripled since the end the Obama administration and hinted Justice may begin issuing more subpoenas when probing alleged leakers.
Some employee advocates have warned the administration's leak crackdown could have a chilling effect on potential whistleblowers looking to report wrongdoing. Interior Department executive Joel Clement, for example, gained notoriety after accusing the agency of reassigning him after he spoke out on the issue of climate change. His reassignment to a position for which he has said he has no training or expertise resulted in a “profound chilling effect” on his staff and sparked backlash from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Tom Devine, a whistleblower advocate and legal director at the Government Accountability Project, said every administration seeks to limit leaks to those it can control, but Trump is "stepping up a long-time executive branch obsession." In its training, Devine said, the administration must take pains to follow statutory requirements that call on agencies to couple any spending on non-disclosure enforcement with reminders of whistleblower rights.
"If the administration is not careful," Devine said, "it could violate one of the most deeply rooted free speech laws on the books."