But legal experts and good-government advocates say the hard-line approach to leaks has a chilling effect on whistleblowers, who fear harsh legal reprisals if they dare to speak up.

Not only that, these advocates say, it runs counter to Obama’s pledges of openness by making it a crime to shine a light on the inner workings of government – especially when there are measures that could protect the nation’s interests without hauling journalists into court and government officials off to jail.

“It is not to me a good sign when government chooses to go after leakers using the full force of criminal law when there are other ways to handle these situations,” said Jane Kirtley, a University of Minnesota law professor and former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Of course, the government has to have some kind of remedy, [but] I’d certainly hope they’re being very selective about these prosecutions.”

Jesselyn Radack, a former Justice Department attorney now with the Government Accountability Project, said it’s “very destructive and damaging to be going after people for leaks that embarrass the government.” The policy, she said, is “a disturbing one particularly from a president who got elected pledging openness and transparency — and someone who also got elected thanks to a lot of [Bush-era] scandals that were revealed by whistleblowers.