World

Clampdown by Trump aides on leaks fuels government paranoia

WASHINGTON: US 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 Mr Trump's now-suspended travel ban pose a threat to the United States.

The clampdown has fuelled 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 Mr Trump just weeks into his presidency. He has described media outlets as "lying", "corrupt", "failing" and "the enemy of the American people."

At a Feb 16 news conference, Mr 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 e-mails 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 US policy.

SURRENDER PHONES

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.

Two sources familiar with Mr Mnuchin's first meeting with senior Treasury staff said he told them that their telephone calls and e-mails could be monitored to prevent leaks. One of the sources said that staff were told that monitoring could become policy.

Asked about Mr 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 e-mail whether Mr Mnuchin had raised the possibility of monitoring phones or e-mails as a matter of policy, the Treasury spokesman replied: "It was not discussed." - REUTERS

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