The night before he was pardoned by President Bill Clinton, former CIA director John M. Deutch agreed in writing to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge for keeping classified information on his home computers, according to authorities and documents.
Special prosecutor Paul E. Coffey, who negotiated the plea agreement, was not consulted about the pardon and was taken by surprise when it was announced, a law enforcement source said.
It is unclear whether Deutch requested clemency from Clinton, or whether the former president simply took action on his own, as he did with some of the other pardons he issued Saturday.
Deutch agreed Friday evening to plead guilty to a single charge of unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents or material -- a misdemeanor. The plea agreement he signed was contingent upon the judge accepting a sentence worked out by both sides, which called for no prison time and a $5,000 fine, a law enforcement source said.
Channing D. Phillips, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Wilma A. Lewis, confirmed that prosecutors planned to file paperwork in the case Monday, scheduling a court date for the expected guilty plea.
But Clinton's pardon of Deutch rendered the issue moot. Phillips declined further comment.
By Saturday, Clinton apparently was aware of the negotiated plea. In his "executive grant of clemency" for Deutch, he made reference to a legal document that is filed as a prelude to a plea agreement.
Coffey did not return a telephone message left at his office yesterday. Deutch's lawyer, Terrence O'Donnell, also did not return calls.
Deutch was among 176 Americans who received pardons or commutations of their sentences from Clinton on the morning that he left office. Some of the pardons, such as the one for fugitive commodities trader Marc Rich, have generated outrage from prosecutors and others.
Following the practice of previous administrations in their closing days, the White House handled the case of Deutch and about two dozen others directly, instead of going through the customary Justice Department screening process.
Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a former CIA operations officer, said yesterday that Clinton's pardon of Deutch sent the wrong message to the intelligence community about the importance of safeguarding classified information.
"I don't think he deserves to be let off the hook for what he did," Goss said, adding it smacked of "taking care of the buddies."
Goss said he would oppose any move by the CIA or the Defense Department to restore Deutch's security clearances. "As long as I'm chairman of the intelligence committee, [the pardon] won't make any difference at all," Goss said.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, agreed that the Deutch pardon "sends the wrong message everywhere. The director of the CIA should be beyond reproach."
Deutch's security violations came to light in late 1996, after he resigned as CIA director. CIA security officials subsequently discovered that he had written and stored hundreds of highly classified intelligence reports on unsecure home computers linked to the Internet.
The Justice Department initially declined to prosecute Deutch and four months later, in August 1999, Tenet stripped him of his CIA security clearances. But in February 2000, amid congressional demands that the case be reopened, then-Attorney General Janet Reno appointed Coffey as a special prosecutor to investigate Deutch's actions.
At that time, Deutch also was under investigation for security violations that stemmed from his tenure at the Defense Department, where he worked before the CIA.
Coffey recommended to Reno that charges be filed. For months, Deutch refused to negotiate with prosecutors, but as Clinton's term drew to a close plea discussions began and took on a sense of urgency. Deutch's lawyer hoped to strike a plea deal while Reno was still in office because a Bush administration attorney general might press for more serious felony charges, people familiar with the discussions said.
Although Clinton's exact reasons for pardoning Deutch are not known, individuals in the White House believed, according to White House sources, that the former CIA director was "overly pursued" by the FBI and later the Justice Department after his situation was compared to that of former Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist Wen Ho Lee. A 59-count felony indictment was filed against Lee for allegedly downloading nuclear secrets. Lee ultimately pleaded guilty in September to a single felony count of mishandling classified information.
Prosecutors had planned to file what is known as a "criminal information" on Monday, a legal document that spells out the charges and can be submitted to the court only with the consent of both parties. A judge then would have set a date for a plea.
Staff writer Vernon Loeb contributed to this report.