Plea deal for Thomas Drake, former NSA official, in classified leaks case

BALTIMORE (AP) - The Justice Department on Thursday reached a plea agreement in the leak case against a former National Security Agency official who allegedly passed classified documents to a newspaper reporter.

In court papers, the government said Thomas Drake will plead guilty to exceeding authorized use of a computer, a misdemeanor.

The government's case had been significantly weakened by its decision in recent days to withdraw some evidence rather than risk exposing secret details of an NSA operation.

Drake's lawyers claim he is a beleaguered whistleblower who leaked unclassified information in an effort to expose waste and abuse at the NSA.

Had Drake been convicted at a trial, he could have faced up to 35 years in prison on charges of obstruction of justice, lying to the FBI and illegal possession of classified NSA documents under the seldom-used Espionage Act of 1917, even though he was not charged with spying.

The newly filed court documents in the plea deal say the government will not oppose a sentence that calls for no jail time. Misdemeanors carry a maximum penalty of one year in jail.

The court documents said the government and Drake agreed that if the case had gone to trial, the government would have proved that from February 2006 through about March 2007, Drake intentionally accessed a system called NSANet, obtained official NSA information and provided it orally and in writing to another person who was not permitted or authorized to receive it.

Drake "knew that NSA restricted the use of and access to its computers and NSANet to official use only," the court papers said. Prosecutors said the only issue in the case was whether he illegally kept classified materials on a personal computer and in his basement.

At the Justice Department, spokeswoman Laura Sweeney declined to comment on the plea agreement.

Problems in bringing the case to trial stemmed from a decision by US. District Judge Richard Bennett rejecting the government's efforts to mask references to "NSA's targeting of a specific telecommunications technology" in six documents entered into evidence, according to a June 5 letter from prosecutors. As a result, the prosecution said, it was withdrawing four of them and would eliminate any reference to the technology in two others.

The government claimed that the documents could compromise NSA's operations.

William M. Welch II, the senior prosecutor, warned in court documents that U.S. "national security would crumble if every individual could anoint himself a whistleblower ... and immunize themselves from prosecution for the most damaging of classified information disclosures."

Sometime in late 2005 and early 2006, Drake contacted Siobhan Gorman, then a reporter with the Baltimore Sun, who wrote an award-winning series on the NSA and Trailblazer, an ill-fated project launched in 2002 to overhaul the agency's vast computer systems to capture and screen information flooding in from the Internet and cell phones.

The $1.2 billion Trailblazer program eventually failed, and the NSA abandoned it in 2006. Drake supported an in-house system that was much cheaper and he said could have gathered critical
information before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks.