A hard nut to crack

Walter Pincus
Reporter June 24, 2013

The seeds of a great mystery story hang over the case of Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, who has pleaded not guilty to charges that he leaked highly classified information about North Korea to Fox News reporter James Rosen four years ago.

The nation’s media remain transfixed on Internet security specialist Edward Snowden, who turned secret National Security Agency documents over to the press and is seeking a safe haven.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

But the complexities of Kim’s case and the Rosen story, published June 11, 2009, on Fox’s Web site, shouldn’t be lost in the Snowden storm.

The story said U.S. intelligence had learned about the four steps North Korea intended to take in response to the U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Pyongyang for its recent nuclear and ballistic missile tests.

They included another nuclear test, reprocessing all the North’s spent plutonium fuel rods, escalating its uranium enrichment program and launching another intercontinental ballistic missile.

Rosen also wrote that the CIA had acquired this intelligence “through sources inside North Korea . . . [and] only learned of North Korea’s plans this week.” He never indicated his source or sources.

The FBI focused on Kim after investigating the limited number of intelligence community personnel who had contact with Rosen as well as access to the Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information intelligence report that appeared to be the basis of the article.

On Kim’s government computer, investigators read Kim-Rosen e-mail exchanges dated prior to the story; they found multiple phone call toll records between the two, including several the day the story ran but prior to it appearing.

In mid-June 2010, the Justice Department delivered a search warrant to Google for Rosen’s Gmail account. It sought e-mail exchanges between Rosen and two Kim Yahoo e-mail accounts and another Gmail account; all e-mails to or from Rosen’s account on June 10 and 11, 2009, the day before and the day of the story’s appearance, along with “those sent or received from other websites” on those days.

Justice also sought Google “records or information relating to the author’s [Rosen] communication with any other source or potential source for the information disclosed in the article,” the warrant said.

In an Oct. 15, 2011, status report on the case, a government index of materials provided to Kim’s lawyer, Washington attorney Abbe Lowell, indicated 13 e-mails evidently to or from Rosen’s account had been turned over to the Kim defense team.

Here’s the mystery:

Was the 45-year-old Kim a brilliant but shy intelligence analyst who inadvertently told secrets to a probing reporter, or was he a self-promoting inside player who leaked information because he was dissatisfied with the Obama administration’s dealings with North Korea?

Why did Kim, who had been handling classified government intelligence for eight years, agree in May 2009 to use false identities when exchanging e-mails with Rosen, whom he’d met just weeks earlier?

Is Rosen a clever journalist who, as he said in a May 22, 2009, e-mail to Kim, seeking to “break some news, and expose muddle-headed policy when we see it?” Or was he seeking to pump up his reputation?

Was the intelligence community concerned about the leak of North Korea’s plans, or Rosen’s reference to sources inside the Pyongyang regime and the timing of when U.S. intelligence got the information? The latter information could have helped North Korea try to find the source.

That would be ironic since in the article Rosen said: “Fox News is withholding some details about the sources and methods by which American intelligence agencies learned of the North’s plans so as to avoid compromising sensitive overseas operations in . . . North Korea.”

Did Justice’s 2010 warrant overreach? Its net could have captured more sources than just Kim, including information about other reporters.

Why, in its August 2010 indictment of Kim, did prosecutors add a charge of making false statements to the FBI in September 2009 about contacts with Rosen? Are government prosecutors concerned that it may be hard to win a conviction under the espionage law if they must prove Kim knew he was hurting the United States or aiding an enemy by talking to Rosen?

Out on bail, Kim is awaiting trial, which may not begin before early 2014. Meanwhile, his attorney has been seeking additional documents and to have more information declassified.

Kim, who was born in Seoul in 1967 and came with family to the United States at age 9, is trying to move on. Now an American citizen, he has a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University, a master’s from Harvard and a doctorate from Yale.

He is well-educated and well-credentialed, having worked at the Center for Naval Analysis and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. At one point, he briefed the George W. Bush Defense Policy Board and later Vice President Cheney and Stephen Hadley, then Bush’s national security adviser, according to the Kim Legal Defense Fund Trust Web site.

He ended up as a contractor for the State Department. There, in March 2009, he apparently was introduced to Rosen, who was covering State from a press cubicle on the second floor of headquarters.

Kim, as an analyst for State’s Bureau of Verification, Compliance and Implementation, worked in a secure area in the same building. One of his tasks was working on “verification plans for assessing the accuracy and completeness of North Korea’s declaration and dismantlement of its nuclear programs,” according to the Kim legal defense trust.

Kim lost his State position in September 2009 when he was under investigation for the leak. He remains employed by Livermore as “a senior analyst,” according to the defense trust.

“I Love a Mystery,” was a radio program when I was growing up in the 1940s. Those mysteries were solved in 15 minutes. The Kim mystery is going to take much longer.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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