By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A former National Security Agency official accused of mishandling classified data and obstructing a probe into leaks of sensitive information agreed on Thursday to plead guilty to a significantly lesser charge.
Thomas Drake was scheduled to go on trial next week on 10 felony counts, including mishandling classified information by taking it home, impeding a probe into leaks from the NSA and making false statements as investigators sought the culprit.
Under the agreement, Drake will plead guilty to a single misdemeanor of exceeding his authorized use of NSA computers, punishable by up to one year in prison. He faced decades of prison time if convicted on the original charges. A plea hearing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. (1330 GMT) on Friday in federal court in Baltimore.
In plea agreement documents filed in federal court late on Thursday, prosecutors said they would not object if the judge decided not to sentence Drake to any prison time. He previously pleaded not guilty and said he considered himself a whistle-blower.
The deal was reached after the judge in the case said efforts to protect classified information in certain evidence prosecutors planned to use at trial hampered the defense. As a result, prosecutors said they would not use some of it.
The case could mark a setback for the Obama administration as it tries to crack down on leaks of sensitive and classified information, an effort begun in earnest by the previous Bush administration but beset with similar problems.
"It seems like in all noteworthy recent cases the same result is reached, the government is forced to decide whether to allow the public airing of classified information or drop its charges," said Glen Donath, a former federal prosecutor and now a private attorney. "And it's almost always gone the latter route."
Drake is one of several individuals facing prosecution over alleged leaks about sensitive government activities and programs, and the plea could have a significant impact on those cases as well.
Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney declined to comment on the plea deal as did Drake's attorney, James Wyda.
Drake worked for several years at NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, as a technical leader in the engineering directorate and had secret clearance that gave him access to signals intelligence information.
He left the NSA headquarters in September 2006 to teach at the National Defense University but still worked for the NSA and retained his security clearance until it was suspended in November 2007, according to the indictment. He left the agency in April 2008 when he faced being fired.
Although prosecutors said Drake discussed classified information with a Baltimore Sun newspaper reporter, he was never charged with leaking at a time when the NSA was under pressure after the failure to detect the September 11 attacks.
The original indictment said he traded hundreds of emails and met the reporter, identified previously by a U.S. official as Siobhan Gorman who now works at The Wall Street Journal, serving as a source for many articles.
Between February 2006 and November 2007, Gorman wrote dozens of articles involving the NSA, including about its secret surveillance programs, the spy agency's efforts to bolster cybersecurity and attempts to stop leaks.
Drake has publicly denied providing her any classified information.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)