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.