A former senior National Security Agency (NSA) official was indicted Thursday on charges he leaked classified information to and served as a source for a reporter who wrote a series of critical articles about the agency's work.
The indictment "suggests the Obama administration may be no less aggressive than the Bush administration in pursuing whistleblowers and reporters’ sources who disclose government secrets," the New York Times noted.
According to the federal indictment, Thomas A. Drake, 52, allegedly corresponded and met in person with an unnamed newspaper reporter between February 2006 and November 2007 and exchanged hundreds of emails with the journalist about the inner workings of the super-secret spy agency.
The allegations agaisnt Drake are unrelated to the charges leveled against Thomas Tamm, the NSA whistleblower who revealed the Bush administration's domestic surveillance program to the New York Times. No charges have been filed in the Tamm case. Tamm has publicly admitted he was a source for the Times story.
The Washington Post identified the reporter Drake allegedly leaked classified information to as Siobhan Gorman, who worked for the Baltimore Sun and published a series of reports in that newspaper which focused on poor management at the NSA and the agency’s failure to set priorities.
"Gorman wrote a number of articles about the NSA during the time period cited in the indictment, including stories about problems with classified information collection and analysis programs known as ‘Turbulence’ and ‘Trailblazer,’” Agence France-Presse reported.
Gorman's reports also "disclosed a crisis in meeting NSA's demands for electrical power and described how the agency had rejected a program that had the promise of collecting communications while protecting Americans’ privacy," according to the Times.
"The articles, though, did not focus on the most highly protected NSA secrets — whose communications it collects, exactly how it collects them and what countries’ codes it has broken," the Times report added. "That may make a prosecution more feasible, from the point of view of protecting secrets during a trial. But because the articles in question documented government failures and weaknesses, the decision to prosecute could raise questions about whether the government is merely moving to protect itself from legitimate public scrutiny."
Ironically, Gorman, who now works for the Wall Street Journal, was covering the Senate confirmation hearing of NSA Director Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander when the Justice Department announced that a federal grand jury in the District of Maryland returned an indictment against Drake. Gorman, the Post reported, did not comment about the case as she left the hearing.
“Gorman's coverage of NSA often placed an unflattering focus on NSA administrators,” the Post reported. “An August 2006 story quoted intelligence officials as showing that the NSA eavesdropping facilities in Fort Meade were at risk of paralysis because of electrical overload and potential failure of the power supply.”
A call to the Baltimore Sun was not returned Thursday. The Justice Department would not confirm whether Gorman is the reporter identified in the indictment.
Drake was charged with 10 felonies, including obstruction of justice, making false statements to the FBI, and the willful retention of classified information related to four classified emails and one classified document. He is alleged to have obstructed justice by shredding classified and unclassified documents, including his handwritten notes that he had removed from the NSA and deleted classified and unclassified information on his home computer
The indictment further alleges that in November 2005, Drake, who was the head of an office within the NSA that dealt with signals intelligence (SIGNIT), was asked by a former congressional staffer to speak with a reporter. Between November 2005 and February 2006, Drake set up a free email account and then paid for a premium Hushmail account that allowed users to exchange secure emails without disclosing the sender or recipient’s identity.
The Justice Department claims Drake used an alias when he contacted the reporter, had her set up her own private, secure email account and then “volunteered” to disclose classified information about the NSA. The indictment alleges Drake had the reporter agree to a set of ground rules, such as never disclosing his identity, attributing information he provided to a "senior intelligence official,” never relying on Drake’s information alone to report a story, never telling Drake who the reporter’s other sources were; and not commenting on what people, to whom Drake recommended the reporter speak, said to the reporter.
"As alleged, this defendant used a secret, non-government e-mail account to transmit classified and unclassified information that he was not authorized to possess or disclose,” said Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer. “As if those allegations are not serious enough, he also allegedly later shredded documents and lied about his conduct to federal agents in order to obstruct their investigation. Our national security demands that the sort of conduct alleged here – violating the government’s trust by illegally retaining and disclosing classified information – be prosecuted and prosecuted vigorously."
In addition to the email exchanges, the Justice Department claims Drake:
- Research[ed] stories for the reporter to write in the future by e-mailing unwitting NSA employees and accessing classified and unclassified documents on classified NSA networks.
- Cop[ied] and past[ed] classified and unclassified information from NSA documents into untitled word processing documents which, when printed, had the classification markings removed.
- Print[ed] both classified and unclassified documents, bringing them to his home, and retaining them there without authority.
- Scann[ed] and email[ed] electronic copies of classified and unclassified documents to the reporter from his home computer and reviewing, commenting on, and editing drafts of the reporter’s articles.
The Obama administration’s decision to prosecute Drake will have a chilling impact on whistleblowers, said Lucy Danglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
"It's not a shock,” Danglish said. "They've always had the ability to charge people with violating national security laws when they leak to a reporter. They just don't typically do it very often."
Danglish said Gorman's reports exposed "a multibillion-dollar boondoggle that was of great interest to Congress."
Still, Danglish said the indictment is "unfortunate" and is "designed to have an impact on leakers."
"It's going to impact people sharing information with reporters," she said.