Ex-federal official calls U.S. classification system ‘dysfunctional’

The government’s espionage case against former National Security Agency official Thomas A. Drake, charged with leaking information about a troubled counterterrorism technology program at the NSA, fell apart last year. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

When the government’s espionage case against former National Security Agency official Thomas A. Drake collapsed last year, it meant that a key defense witness didn’t get to take the stand.

The witness, J. William Leonard, the government’s former classification czar, planned to testify about the harm to democracy represented by the case — not from Drake leaking information about a troubled counterterrorism technology program at the NSA, but from what Leonard viewed as the government’s needless classification of information.

Leonard’s views, outlined in an affidavit, got some support with the release of a memo that formed part of the evidence against Drake. The Washington Post received the memo in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The now-declassified two-page memo is titled “What a Wonderful Success,” and it contains praise from Gen. Keith B. Alexander, director of the NSA, for agency employees involved in the program. Two paragraphs were marked “secret.” One of them praised the merits of the program and spoke of getting members of Congress to see how it worked. In the other, a team member was lauded for “an excellent job” of briefing Alexander on the program.

The memo also referred to the program’s use in combating a Chinese cyber-espionage effort, known as Byzantine Hades.

Leonard, who saw the memo in preparation for Drake’s trial, said in his affidavit that it “contained no information which met the standards of the classification system.”

Until January 2008, Leonard was the director of the Information Security Oversight Office, which has policy oversight of the executive branch’s national security information classification system. In 34 years of federal service, he said, “I have never seen a more willful example” of inappropriate classification of information.

In an e-mail Friday, Leonard, speaking generally, said the system for classifying information is “becoming dysfunctional” and “clearly lacks the ability to differentiate between trivial information and that which can truly damage our nation’s well-being.”

The NSA did not respond to a request for comment.

Drake was charged with 10 felony counts for passing information to a Baltimore Sun reporter in 2006 and 2007 that raised questions about waste and abuse at the NSA, including within the technology program known as Turbulence. He faced up to 35 years in prison for espionage and obstruction of justice.

The case collapsed in June 2011 after federal prosecutors withdrew key documents to keep from disclosing at trial what they said was sensitive information. In a setback to the Obama administration’s efforts to prosecute alleged leakers, Drake agreed to plead guilty to a single misdemeanor of exceeding the authorized use of his government computer. He was not sentenced to any prison time.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, also received the declassified memo from the NSA and said its disclosure reinforced questions raised about the prosecution.

“It’s utterly innocuous and practically devoid of meaningful content,” he said of the memo in an interview. “The idea that someone risked decades of prison over this document is an indictment of the agency and its classification policy.”

Ellen Nakashima is a national security reporter for The Washington Post. She focuses on issues relating to intelligence, technology and civil liberties.


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