Leak Case

Former N.S.A. Official Is Indicted in Leak Case

In a highly unusual legal action against an alleged leaker of government secrets, a federal grand jury on Thursday indicted a former senior National Security Agency official on charges of providing classified information to a newspaper reporter in hundreds of e-mail messages in 2006 and 2007.

The official, Thomas A. Drake, 52, was also accused of obstructing justice by shredding documents, deleting computer records and lying to investigators who were looking into the reporter’s sources.

"Our national security demands that the sort of conduct alleged here — violating the government’s trust by illegally retaining and disclosing classified information — be prosecuted and prosecuted vigorously," Lanny A. Breuer, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s criminal division, said in a statement.

The F.B.I. executive assistant director in charge of national security, Arthur M. Cummings II, said the bureau would continue to aggressively pursue such leak investigations.

But Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a press advocacy group, called the indictment "unfortunate."

"The whole point of the prosecution is to have a chilling effect on reporters and sources, and it will," she said.

The indictment does not name either the reporter who received the information or the newspaper, but the description fits articles written by Siobhan Gorman, then a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, that examined in detail the failings of several major N.S.A. modernization programs and problems with supplying its huge electric power demands. Some of her articles were honored with a top prize from the Society for Professional Journalists.

The N.S.A., which monitors phone calls, e-mail messages and other electronic communications, had spent hundreds of millions of dollars to update its systems to collect and sort the huge amount of data it was collecting. The modernization programs were plagued with technical failures and cost overruns, and Ms. Gorman, who now works for The Wall Street Journal, was the reporter who most aggressively covered the problems.

Ms. Gorman, who has not been charged with wrongdoing, could not immediately be reached for comment.

The Baltimore Sun articles that appear to be referred to in the indictment dealt with mismanagement and did not generally focus on the most highly protected N.S.A. secrets — whose communications it focuses on and what countries government and military codes it has broken.

That may make a prosecution more feasible, from the point of view of protecting secrets during a trial. But because the articles in question documented government failures and weaknesses, the prosecution could raise questions about whether the government is merely moving to protect itself from public scrutiny.

If Ms. Gorman’s articles were indeed those involved in the case, Ms. Dalglish said, they exposed “a multibillion-dollar boondoggle that was of great interest to Congress.” She called the articles "important public-interest reporting."

Mr. Drake, a high-ranking N.S.A. official from 2001 to 2008, is charged with 10 counts, including retention of classified information, obstruction of justice and making false statements. The retention counts each carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Only a handful of prosecutions have been brought against government officials in recent decades for leaking information, and such cases often provoke a public debate over the tradeoff between protecting government secrets and covering up government wrongdoing or incompetence.

The Justice Department spent several years investigating leaks to The New York Times after the newspaper disclosed in December 2005 the existence of the Bush administration’s warrantless eavesdropping program, run by the N.S.A. No government official was charged in that case.

News reports based on classified information are common, and they are often followed by a referral of the leak by the intelligence agency to the Justice Department for investigation. But prosecutions remain rare, in part because of the difficulty of identifying leakers and in part because spy agencies often fear a trial will do more damage to national security than the original leak.

(Published by The New York Times- April 15, 2010)

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