BALTIMORE – A former senior official with the National Security Agency reached a plea agreement Thursday with the Justice Department, bringing a quick end to a case that pitted the government’s need to keep secrets against the public’s right to know.
Thomas Drake will plead guilty to exceeding authorized use of a computer, a misdemeanor, and the government will drop 10 felony counts that could have sent him to prison for the rest of his life, according to court documents. In return, prosecutors say they won’t oppose a sentence that spares the 54-year-old Maryland man a prison term.
Drake was scheduled to appear in federal court in Baltimore this morning, with formal sentencing likely to follow at a later date.
The prosecution’s case appeared to unravel after it announced in court files Sunday that it planned to withdraw some evidence rather than risk exposing an unidentified telecommunications technology targeted by the NSA’s vast electronic spying network.
Had Drake been convicted in 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. Under the deal, Drake faces no more than one year in prison and supporters expect him to be sentenced only to supervised probation.
Those supporters say that if prosecutors had pursued the case, it would have discouraged government officials from reporting waste and abuse, especially in the U.S. intelligence community.
“The case clearly collapsed,” said Jessalyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, a whistle-blower advocacy group. “It was a case built on sand, and when the government was put to the test, I think it shows that whistle-blowers are not spies and that the Espionage Act is a particularly heinous tool that should never be used to cover up government wrongdoing and punish whistle-blowers who oppose it.”
Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney declined to discuss the case.
Under the agreement, the government and Drake agreed that if the case had gone to trial, prosecutors would have proved that from February 2006 through about March 2007, Drake intentionally logged into 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.