Justice Dept. Official to Step Down Amid Uproar Over Leaks Inquiry


WASHINGTON – John C. Demers, the head of the Department of Justice’s national security division, will step down late next week, according to an email he sent to his staff on Monday. His departure was arranged months ago but comes amid backlash over classified information leak investigations.

Mr Demers was the longest-serving Senate-approved Trump administration official remaining in the Justice Department during the Biden presidency.

“You can probably imagine I stayed a lot longer than I planned, but a long time ago I told new people I was out when school was out,” wrote Mr Demers, who has school-age children in the Email: A copy of this was received from the New York Times. “And that’s the end of next week.”

Mark J. Lesko, the acting chief attorney for the Eastern District of New York, will replace Mr. Demers on an interim basis until the new head of the division is confirmed by the Senate, according to an official familiar with the matter. President Biden has named Matthew G. Olsen, an Uber executive who served in several national security roles in the government, to lead the national security division. His Senate confirmation hearing could take place as early as next month.

John P. Carlin, the second in command in the assistant attorney general’s office, asked Mr. Demers to stay with the department in April, the officer said. Lisa O. Monaco had just been confirmed as assistant attorney general, and since it would be months before a new head of national security could be confirmed, Mr Demers would ensure continuity.

Mr Demers asked to leave until the summer and the two men eventually agreed that he would stay until June 25, the official said.

But his departure comes after Democrats and First Amendment supporters attacked the Department of Justice after revelations revealed that prosecutors supervised by Mr. Demers confiscated records from reporters from the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN.

Just before Mr Demers was confirmed in 2018, these prosecutors also received the records of the top House Democrats while investigating classified leakage. The inspector general of the department announced on Friday an investigation into the matter.

While it is common for the Justice Department to find out who leaked classified information to the news media, it is highly unusual to secretly collect records from journalists and lawmakers. Prosecutors also prevented lawyers and executives from The Times and CNN from disclosing the files, even to the newsroom heads, another extremely aggressive move.

Although such steps require the attorney general’s signature, Mr. Demers and his senior deputies on counterintelligence would typically be informed and kept informed of these efforts.

Much of the spotlight on national security cases during Mr Demers’ tenure has instead focused on Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who led the Russia investigation, the Justice Department’s most well-known and politically intricate national security matter.

But Mr Demers’ tenure included overseeing other significant cases, some with political overtones. National security attorneys arrested a senior executive of Huawei, one of China’s top telecommunications companies, on charges of disregarding sanctions when President Donald J. Trump was seated next to Chinese President Xi Jinping at a state dinner in 2018.

Mr Demers’ standout is likely to be the work of the Department to Combat Chinese Intellectual Property Theft, Espionage and Other National Security Threats, under its so-called China Initiative, which has focused law enforcement resources on such cases.

As part of the program, the department tracked about half a dozen cases of targeted business intelligence and highlighted how China had become a safe haven for criminal hackers who sometimes worked for its government. Hackers accused of working for the People’s Liberation Army have been charged with breaking into the computers of American companies such as Equifax in order to steal information.

The Justice Department also went through China’s efforts to cultivate and influence academics at US universities and research centers in order to get them to transfer technical know-how and other research. The department also stepped up scrutiny of Chinese companies looking to invest in US technology.

In an interview last fall, Mr. Demers said that China is “more confident than ever when it comes to openly advocating its interests around the world.” The China initiative is a continuation of cases carried out by the Obama administration under Mr. Carlin and Ms. Monaco, he said.

“We know these cases are very difficult,” said Mr. Demers, noting that China may never extradite the accused to an American court. “But John Carlin said when he was here we were ready to bring this because the foreign policy implications are important. We had to tell China, ‘That is not acceptable.’ “

Bringing together the types of cases related to China’s national security threats into one initiative helped codify that work, and Mr. Demers and other Justice Department executives were able to show that it was a top priority, he said .

“The Ministry of Justice for China’s efforts have received tremendous support from both sides at a time when there is not much support from both parties on many issues,” Demers said.

His ability to bypass controversy came to an end in the past few weeks when the revelations of record seizures and gag orders from reporters came to light.

Leak investigators in 2018 also received data from Microsoft and Apple who were Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, including representatives Adam B. Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both Democrats from California. Mr. Schiff is now chairman of the board.

In these cases, the Justice Department also asked tech companies not to notify customers of the subpoenas until recently.

Some Democrats called for answers to what Mr Demers knew about the leak cases. Senator Chuck Schumer from New York, the majority leader, asked him on Sunday to testify in front of Congress.

When Mr Demers became Head of National Security on February 22, 2018, he received praise from both Democrats and Republicans who found he had worked under administrations of both parties.

Confirmation was his third stint in the Justice Department; From 2006, when the National Security Division was created, until 2009, Mr. Demers was part of the leadership team. He previously served in the department’s Office of Legal Counsel, essentially the government’s chief legal advisor, and in the office of the Assistant Attorney General.

He graduated from Harvard Law School, where he and Mr. Carlin were friends and classmates.

Nicole Hong contributed the coverage from New York.