Former NSA official allegedly leaked material to media

By Greg Miller, Spencer S. Hsu and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 16, 2010

The indictment of a former U.S. intelligence official accused of leaking secrets to the media marks an attempt by the Obama administration to disrupt a type of transaction that has persisted for decades in Washington, routinely triggering criminal referrals but rarely ending up in court.

The case disclosed Thursday involves a former senior executive at the nation's most secretive spy service. He has been charged with 10 felony counts of mishandling classified information from the National Security Agency and trying to obstruct authorities' investigation of his alleged actions.

Thomas A. Drake, 52, has not been accused of sharing the most sensitive of the NSA's secrets: the means it uses to intercept e-mails and phone calls around the world, or the tools it employs to crack adversaries' codes. Instead, Drake appears to have provided a steady stream of documents and information to a Baltimore Sun reporter whose work exposed NSA system failures and mismanaged programs.

Drake's lawyer said Thursday that his client had cooperated with authorities but would now mount a vigorous defense against the charges.

Prosecutions -- let alone convictions -- of leaks cases have been rare. Many result in efforts to compel journalists to reveal their sources, but in this case the government appears to have identified an alleged leaker directly.

Federal prosecutors dropped charges last year against two former lobbyists for a pro-Israeli advocacy group accused of conspiring to obtain classified information on al-Qaeda and Iraq and provide it to news organizations, including The Washington Post. That effort, launched during the Bush administration, included allegations of espionage, a charge prosecutors have not made against Drake.

The most prominent case in recent years, involving I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Richard B. Cheney, showed the flip side of the issue -- instances in which senior government officials sanction leaks to advance their political aims. Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice after being accused of providing secret information about Iraq to a reporter.

In its indictment of Drake, the Justice Department portrayed him as a longtime consultant and executive at the world's premier code-breaking agency who nevertheless relied on relatively unsophisticated methods to give away NSA secrets. Those methods allegedly included copying and pasting documents in order to remove classification markings, as well as using a widely available encrypted e-mail service.

Drake "exchanged hundreds of e-mails" and met with a reporter, whom the indictment did not name. Drake also "reviewed, commented on, and edited . . . final drafts" of the reporter's articles, according to the indictment. It accused Drake of shredding documents and wiping computer hard drives when he suspected authorities were on his trail.

The case could create new tensions between the government and the media, putting pressure on reporters and the sources they rely on in some cases to highlight government waste and abuse.

Bruce W. Sanford, a First Amendment lawyer in Washington, called the Justice Department's explanation of the case "prosecutorial pabulum." He said that "leak prosecutions against people trying to improve national security are absurd. What is not at stake here are sources and methods of intelligence-gathering. . . . This fellow is clearly a whistle-blower."

The indictment could also discourage government employees from speaking to reporters and would-be whistle-blowers from coming forward, said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "I do think there are some people who will be enormously 'chilled,' " she said.

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