After a former FBI agent agreed to plead guilty Monday to divulging details of a foiled terrorist plot to the Associated Press, the U.S. Department of Justice acknowledged that its subpoena of reporters' phone records enabled it to identify the leaker as Donald John Sachtleben.
Sachtleben faces a 43-month sentence for disclosing to a reporter in May 2012 information regarding a thwarted Yemen-based plan to bomb a U.S.-bound airplane. After the AP and other media outlets covered the plot, the Justice Department secretly subpoenaed the phone records of more than 20 AP telephone lines for April and May 2012.
“Sachtleben was identified as a suspect in the case of this unauthorized disclosure only after toll records for phone numbers related to the reporter were obtained through a subpoena and compared to other evidence collected during the leak investigation,” the Justice Department wrote in it a statement Monday. “This allowed investigators to obtain a search warrant authorizing a more exhaustive search of Sachtleben’s cell phone, computer, and other electronic material.”
The department said that the phone record subpoena came only after interviews with more than 500 individuals failed to turn up the leaker.
Sachtleben, who is 55 and from Carmel, Ind., is the subject of the Obama administration’s eighth leak-related prosecution. He was an FBI bomb technician from 1983 to 2008, and then worked as a contractor for the organization until May 2012. He had top secret security clearance in both roles, and had regular access to classified and national security information.
Under the plea deal, which was filed in the U.S. District Court in Indianapolis Monday, Sachtleben would also serve a 97-month term for unrelated child pornography charges. The deal is contingent upon court approval, and Sachtleben’s attorney, Larry A. Mackey, said Tuesday that he expects there to be a court date in the next few weeks.
In a court filing that both parties signed in advance of the plea deal, Sachtleben stipulated to a number of facts about his relationship with the journalist, who the document refers to as “Reporter A.”
Sachtleben developed a “source-reporter relationship” with the journalist in the fall of 2009, when he provided information about an FBI training program, according to the filing. From January 2010 to May 2012, Sachtleben emailed, texted and spoke with the reporter about “explosives used in terrorist plots or attacks and the FBI’s analysis of such explosives,” the document said. The government obtained those email and text messages from Sachtleben’s electronic devices.
The leak at issue involved a plan by a terrorist group, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to conduct a suicide bomb attack on an airplane. On April 30, 2012, the reporter texted with Sachtleben regarding his speculation about the FBI’s recovery of a “body bomb,” the court filing said.
Two days later, Sachtleben went to the lab where FBI officials were examining the bomb, and then called the reporter to tell him about the investigation, the filing said. Later that day, the reporter and one of his colleagues called a number of government officials and stated facts that they knew about the Yemen plot. The AP published its story on May 7, 2012 and other news outlets followed suit.
Later that month, prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against Sachtleben on the child pornography charges. Meanwhile, the FBI began its 15-month investigation of the leak, which included hundred of interviews and, later, analyses of the subpoenaed telephone records, according to the Justice Department statement.
News of the secret AP subpoenas broke this May. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 51 news organizations then wrote a letter to the Justice Department condemning the action and calling for reform. After meeting with media representatives, Attorney General Eric Holder released a report recommending new guidelines on journalist subpoenas.
Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole referenced these guidelines after saying Sachtleben’s disclosures “severely jeopardized national security and put lives at risk.”
“To keep the country safe, the department must enforce the law against such critical and dangerous leaks, while respecting the important role of the press under the department’s media guidelines and any shield law enacted by Congress,” Cole said in a statement Monday.
An AP spokesman told news sources this week that he would not comment on the case.