Former National Security Agency official Thomas Drake pleaded guilty to a dramatically lower charge on Friday – the 10 felony charges against him were thrown-out — in the highly publicized leak case that was set to go to trial Monday in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
In an unexpected move, Drake, 54, agreed Thursday to take a last-minute deal that had him plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of “exceeding authorized use of a computer,” which carries a sentence of up to one year in jail, though prosecutors agreed in the deal to not seek jail time. Drake formally entered his guilty plea in court on Friday. Sentencing is scheduled for July 15, according to a statement issued by the Department of Justice.
In a 10-count indictment, Drake was originally charged with unlawful retention of national defense documents, obstruction of justice and making a false statement after allegedly taking classified defense documents home with the intent to leak information to a reporter and then lying about doing so.
Drake is suspected of giving classified information to Siobhan Gorman, then a reporter at The Baltimore Sun, who wrote a series of articles about problems at the National Security Agency. However, he was not charged for leaking information to her but instead for taking classified materials home.
“As today’s guilty plea shows, in cases involving classified information, we must always strike the careful balance between holding accountable those who break our laws, while not disclosing highly-sensitive information that our intelligence agencies conclude would be harmful to our nation’s security if used at trial,” Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer said in a Department of Justice statement.
U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett ruled on June 2 to allow some unclassified, sensitive information to be substituted in Drake’s trial. The prosecution had asked for the “protected” information to be withheld based privileges provided under the National Security Agency Act of 1959, which says the agency doesn’t have to release information relating to its activities.
However, prosecutors were worried about disclosing some "highly classified" information during trial under pre-trial rulings regarding the Classified Information Procedures Act, according to the Department of Justice press release.
Prosecutors wrote to Bennett on Sunday, notifying him they did not want to mention a certain telecommunications technology during the trial. To avoid releasing information they said would harm national security, prosecutors would have needed to exclude several exhibits from the trial.
These exemptions likely would have lead to dropping two or more of the more serious charges against Drake, Politico reported.
Drake is one of five known leakers prosecuted by the Obama administration. The U.S. Department of Justice issued a subpoena last month for the testimony of New York Times reporter James Risen in the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA operations officer accused of leaking classified information. Risen’s lawyer has said he intends to file a motion to quash the subpoena. A federal judge is set to hear arguments in the motion on July 7.
The other alleged leakers are: Stephen Kim, a former Department of State analyst who allegedly leaked an intelligence report to an unidentified reporter; Bradley Manning, a U.S. Army private alleged to have leaked classified information to WikiLeaks; and Shamai Leibowitz, a former FBI linguist who was convicted in May 2010 of charges related to the leaking of classified information to an unidentified blogger and sentenced to 20 months in prison.