Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday refused to comment on the "speculative" notion that the Justice Department could prosecute news outlets in the future following a report that his agency is preparing to file criminal charges against and arrest members of WikiLeaks, including its founder Julian Assange.
"Should folks be concerned this would also open up news organizations like CNN or the New York Times to prosecution?" CNN's Kate Bolduan asked Sessions during a joint interview with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.
"That's speculative, and I'm not able to comment on that," Sessions responded, before stating that he was having difficulty hearing Bolduan.
Federal prosecutors are looking as far back as a 2010 WikiLeaks dump of diplomatic and military communications as well as the group's recent leak of documents about the CIA's secret hacking program, according to reports from the Washington Post and CNN on Thursday.
Sessions said Friday he would not discuss any investigation that "may or may not" take place at DOJ, but did emphasize his commitment to strike back against individuals who are "inflicting real damage" on U.S. national security through leaks. President Trump too has condemned news reports based on leaks from anonymous sources.
The Obama administration abstained from pressing charges against WikiLeaks in 2013 because it could not do so without also prosecuting U.S. news organizations. U.S. officials have long had a hard time deciding whether Assange is protected under First Amendment.
However, CIA Director Mike Pompeo provided groundwork for possible government action when he said WikiLeaks' activity ventured beyond First Amendment protection and vowed sharp a crackdown on the group, which he called "a non-state, hostile intelligence service, often abetted by state actors like Russia."
Barry Pollack, an attorney for Assange, says there is "no legitimate basis for the Department of Justice to treat WikiLeaks differently than it treats other journalists," according to the Washington Post. Pollack also said the Justice Department never contacted Assange's legal team about any investigations even though they had requested the agency do so.
Assange has lived in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He is wanted in Sweden on charges of sexual assault, but he has expressed fear that he could be extradited to the United States for publishing classified information should he leave the embassy.