NEW YORK — Soon after President Obama appointed him director of national intelligence in 2009, Dennis C. Blair called for a tally of the number of government officials or employees who had been prosecuted for leaking national security secrets. He was dismayed by what he found.
In the previous four years, the record showed, 153 cases had been referred to the Justice Department. Not one had led to an indictment.
That score card “was pretty shocking to all of us,” Blair said. So in a series of phone calls and meetings, he and Attorney General Eric Holder fashioned a more aggressive strategy to punish anyone who leaked national security information that endangered intelligence-gathering methods and sources.
“We were hoping to get somebody and make people realize that there are consequences to this and it needed to stop,” said Blair, who left the administration in 2010.
The Obama team has done its best to define those consequences, with an aggressive focus on leaks and leakers that has led to more than twice as many prosecutions as there were in all previous administrations combined.
It also led to a significant legal victory Friday when a federal appeals court accepted the Justice Department’s argument that the First Amendment does not protect reporters from having to reveal the sources suspected of leaking information to them in the case of New York Times reporter James Risen.
In tracing the origins of this effort, present and former government officials said the focus on leaks began at the administration’s highest levels and was driven by pressure from the intelligence agencies and members of Congress.
An unprecedented cascade of disclosures, including hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks, gave the search for leakers a growing sense of urgency, according to these officials, while technological advances made the job of finding them easier. And prosecutors, until recently, were given more latitude to comb through journalists’ records to hunt for suspects.
The charges filed last month against Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, is the Justice Department’s seventh leak-related prosecution.
And the department’s next case may be aimed at just the kind of top-level target Blair said he had hoped for: James E. Cartwright, a retired general who was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Cartwright has been identified as a focus of an investigation into the disclosure of classified information about US-led cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear program.
Supporters of the crackdown — even those with qualms about seeking evidence from journalists — say a culture of leaking must be reined in to protect covert sources and high-risk intelligence operations and reassure allies that it is safe to share intelligence.
But critics argue the Cartwright case, and now the appeals court ruling, shows how the anti-leak campaign has gone too far, producing a chilling effect on newsgathering without deterring leakers.
Implicitly at least, Holder seemed to acknowledge some of the criticism this month when he restored and bolstered longstanding Justice Department restraints on seeking evidence from journalists.