Ex-NSA official gets probation in leaking case

AP News
Posted: Jul 15, 2011 7:53 PM
Ex-NSA official gets probation in leaking case

A former senior spy agency official who admitted giving inside information to the Baltimore Sun about a major government electronic espionage program was given a year's probation and community service Friday, in a blow to the Obama Administration's crackdown on leaks to the media.

The judge rejected the government's request for a stiff fine and scolded prosecutors for the way the case was handled.

Outside the courtroom, Thomas Drake, a 54-year-old former executive with the National Security Agency who now works at a Washington-area Apple Store, told reporters he felt relieved and vindicated by the lenient sentence. "Justice did prevail in the end, proving the truth does matter," he said.

Drake said he had been "personally and professionally shattered" by the government's investigation and prosecution, which he called "vindictive and malicious." He said investigators put his life, as well as the life of his family and friends, under intense scrutiny. "We're talking about a microscope that's set at a very high power of resolution," he said.

The prosecution asked at the sentencing hearing for a $50,000 fine against Drake, who last year was indicted on 10 felony counts under an espionage statute, but who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor after the prosecution case collapsed last month.

The felony case against Drake was dropped in June after the government balked at putting key classified documents and information into evidence. In a plea deal, Drake admitted exceeding his authorized access in his use of an NSA computer system.

U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett said the crime Drake admitted to was "significant" and that Drake had exercised poor judgment in going to the media with his concerns about the NSA program. Like all other NSA employees, Drake had signed an agreement not to talk publicly about his work for the secretive agency, based at Fort Meade.

But Bennett rejected the government's request for a fine, and instead criticized the Justice Department for the 2 1/2 year delay between the day FBI agents raided Drake's Maryland home and the date a federal grand jury returned its indictment.

Bennett also scolded the government for dropping the 10 felony counts three days before Drake's trial was scheduled to begin. The judge said the government had put Drake through "four years of hell" without bringing him to trial. "It was not proper," Bennett said. "It does not pass the smell test."

Prosecutor William Welch argued that Bennett needed to levy a substantial fine to deter other would-be leakers. Thousands of NSA employees who go to work every day abide by their pledges not to disclose information, Welch said. "Does their obligation that they live by every single day have any meaning?" he asked.

But Bennett dismissed those arguments, noting Drake had lost his prestigious job, his pension and his top secret clearance, and had spent years not knowing if he would be charged with a crime. "No one would want to switch places with Tom Drake," Bennett said.

Bennett also ordered Drake to perform 240 hours of community service.

President Barack Obama has pursued five criminal cases against officials accused of leaking under espionage statutes, more than all of his predecessors combined.

The crackdown on leaks has broad bipartisan support in Congress. But legal experts and open government advocates question whether those who disclose classified information to the media should face the same charges as spies for foreign governments.

Drake has admitted giving the Baltimore paper inside information about the NSA's Trailblazer project, an effort by the electronic spying agency in the early 2000s to overhaul its computer systems to handle the flood of data in the Internet age.

But Drake said again yesterday he didn't disclose classified information, and that his only aim was to expose what he considered to be a boondoggle that set back U.S. efforts to gather intelligence on terrorist and other threats.

Drake told reporters after his sentencing that in deciding to go to the press with his concerns, he had to weigh his pledge to defend the constitution against his nondisclosure pledge to NSA.

Drake speaks German, is a decorated veteran of the Air Force and Navy reserve and flew highly-classified surveillance missions over Europe during the Cold War, court filings show. He has worked in intelligence for most of his career.

In support of their request for leniency, his lawyers quoted friends and colleagues who described Drake in glowing terms. One former colleague called him "the straightest arrow I have ever known," someone who could be described by the phrase: "He Follows the Rules."

Bennett noted that Drake had never been convicted of a crime, and apparently had never even received a parking ticket. "It's not often that I have a defendant who has a better record than I do," the judge said.