June 12, 2011

IN THE END, the case against Thomas A. Drake fizzled. Originally charged with multiple counts under the Espionage Act and potentially facing decades behind bars, the former National Security Agency employee pleaded guilty last week to the minor charge of unauthorized use of a computer — a misdemeanor that carries no jail time and no fine.

So much for the Obama administration’s attempt to use Mr. Drake’s case to deter other potential leakers. Plea bargains typically result in lesser charges and sentences, but the yawning gap between the original charges against Mr. Drake and the plea bargain is not only an embarrassment for the Justice Department but demonstrates the extent to which it overreached.

Although not technically charged with spying, Mr. Drake was indicted in 2010 for five violations of a provision of the Espionage Act, a World War I-era law designed to punish those who hand over national security information to the enemy. Prosecutors based their charges on Mr. Drake’s exchanges with a Baltimore Sun reporter about an NSA surveillance program Mr. Drake believed was mismanaged and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars. He was set to go to trial on Monday.

The department’s hand was weakened by a judge’s decision that essentially barred it from proceeding with a number of Espionage Act charges. The government’s decision not to appeal the judge’s ruling and its willingness to accept the dramatically reduced plea by Mr. Drake strengthen the conclusion that the case was poorly conceived.

This newspaper is not a disinterested party and maintains an interest in obtaining information that sheds light on the inner workings of government. But we also recognize the government’s obligation to hold accountable those who breach agreements, especially ones that touch on national security interests. The question is whether the action taken is proportionate to the alleged crime. In Mr. Drake’s case, it was not.

The Drake case should serve as a reminder of the importance of giving government employees, especially those who work in areas that touch on national security, a clear and lawful path to allege malfeasance and abuse. Inspectors general are logical repositories for such matters. Mr. Drake bypassed the NSA’s inspector general but filed a complaint with the Defense Department’s IG, which validated much of his criticism. Yet little came of the investigation, which is what prompted Mr. Drake to turn to the press.

Congress and the administration should work to strengthen the tools and independence of the IGs, especially those in the intelligence communities. The administration should also quickly fill the 10 IG vacancies, including those in the Justice, Homeland Security and State departments.