Former CIA agent John Kiriakou pleads not guilty to leaking secrets to journalists

Andrea Papagianis | Newsgathering | News | April 13, 2012

A former CIA intelligence officer pleaded not guilty this morning to federal charges that he violated the Espionage Act by leaking classified documents to journalists.

John Kiriakou was arraigned during a brief hearing before U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema in Alexandria, Va. Brinkema also is overseeing the U.S. government's case against another ex-CIA official, Jeffrey Sterling. Showing little emotion, the 47-year-old waived his constitutional right to a speedy trial as Judge Brinkema asked him to acknowledge his understanding of the decision. Kiriakou's request for a trial by jury was granted and is scheduled to start on Monday, Nov. 26.

Kiriakou, who worked for the CIA from 1990 to 2004, is accused of repeatedly disclosing information to journalists including the identities of covert officers and their participation in the capture and interrogation of terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay. In its criminal filing, the Department of Justice alleged Kiriakou was the source of classified information for stories written in 2008 and 2009 that detailed some of the agency's operations after the 9/11 attacks. Kiriakou also is accused of withholding information from an agency board that reviews all publications released by its employees. The journalists were not named in court records. According to court documents, however, one of the stories in question was published by The New York Times.

The former agent is charged with three criminal counts for his alleged violation of the Espionage Act, one count of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act and one count for making false statements to the CIA Publications Review Board about sensitive material published in his book "The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA's War on Terror." The charges carry a maximum sentence of 50 years in prison. Kiriakou's next scheduled court appearance is July 20, when preliminary pretrial motions will be heard.

The prosecution did not indicate whether it planned to subpoena reporters in the Kiriakou case as prosecutors in the case against Sterling had done. Sterling's prosecution has renewed the legal debate surrounding whistleblowers and journalists' compelled disclosure of confidential sources and other materials obtained while gathering and reporting information about matters of significant public interest and concern.

Like Kiriakou, Sterling is accused of violating the Espionage Act for disclosing classified information. In July, Brinkema quashed the prosecution's subpoenas of New York Times reporter James Risen, to name confidential sources he used in his 2006 book "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration."

The decision limited Risen's testimony in Sterling's case to only include information already in the public domain and disallowed the testimony of the prosecution's two key witnesses. Federal prosecutors appealed this decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. (4th Cir.), pushing back the start of the trial. Sterling, who worked for the CIA from 1993 to 2002, is charged with 10 federal crimes including mail fraud and obstruction of justice.

Kiriakou and Sterling are among the six other government employees accused within the last few years of violating the Espionage Act by speaking to the press. While the current administration pressed the charges, most of the grand jury investigations were conducted under President Bush. All six cases involve the media -- leading some to believe these prosecutions are setting a dangerous precedent that could chill the press.

"I think of this not only as a war on whistleblowers but an assault on journalists too," said Jesslyn Radack, the director of National Security and Human Rights with the Government Accountability Project. "I don’t think people are realizing that they [the government] are going after the fourth estate -- journalism."

Among the accused government leakers is Thomas Drake, a former National Security Agency official who faced a 10-count indictment for allegedly leaking government information to a reporter at The Baltimore Sun. The reporter is believed to be Siobhan Gorman, now with the Wall Street Journal, who wrote a series of articles shedding light on issues at the agency. Drake was not charged for leaking information to the journalist, but rather for taking classified information home. The government's case against Drake took a dramatic turn just days before the trial's start when Drake pleaded guilty to a far lesser charge -- a misdemeanor for "exceeding authorized use of a computer" -- in an exchange that dropped all felony charges. Drake was sentenced to one year of probation and community service.

Other alleged leakers include: Bradley Manning, a U.S. Army private accused of leaking thousands of documents to the website Wikileaks; Stephen Kim, a former U.S. State Department foreign policy analyst charged with providing a reporter with national defense information and; Shamai Leibowitz, a former FBI linguist convicted in May 2010 for providing a unnamed blogger documents containing information on intelligence activities.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· News: Former CIA operative John Kiriakou indicted by grand jury for leaking confidential information to journalists

· News: U.S. files unopposed motion to seal parts of oral argument in Sterling, Risen appeals

· NM&L: Proposed federal shield law resurfaces again

· NM&L: The future of government leakers