- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2011

Government prosecutors announced a last-minute plea bargain Thursday evening in a high-profile leak case against a senior National Security Agency official, dropping almost all the charges in a decision hailed by government-transparency advocates as ending a case of Obama administration overreach.

Thomas Drake, whose trial on 10 felony espionage charges had been slated to begin next week, instead pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count of exceeding his authorized access to a government computer system and will not serve prison time, according to a court filing from the Justice Department.

The plea will be entered Friday, though no date has been set for the formal sentencing. The court will ultimately determine the punishment, but prosecutors said in the filing they “will not oppose” a noncustodial sentence.

The filing dramatically ends the first in a series of five high-profile prosecutions by the Obama administration against intelligence officials accused of having leaked information improperly to reporters.

Mr. Drake acknowledged communicating with Siobhan Gorman, then a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, about mismanagement at the supersecret NSA, but always denied passing her any classified information.

According to people close to the case, he had previously refused at least one plea deal, which would have required him to admit he mishandled classified information.

“He has always said he did nothing wrong, that he never passed classified material to anyone,” said Steven Aftergood, an advocate for government transparency at the Federation of American Scientists.

Mr. Aftergood told The Washington Times that he welcomed the outcome.

“Not a single one of the original 10 counts was validated. That’s an indication that the Obama administration miscalculated. The government overreached and overreacted,” Mr. Aftergood said.

Mr. Drake, he noted, “admitted that he broke the rules. It happens. But he is not a felon. He never endangered national security.”

Lawyers for Mr. Drake could not be reached for comment. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the pending case.

The documents Mr. Drake was originally charged with keeping improperly at his home were related to an internal dispute within NSA, the Fort Meade, Md.-based electronic spying agency, over a $1.2 billion technology program at the turn of the century called Trailblazer. The program was designed to help the agency index and analyze the vast torrents of electronic information collected from computer and phone systems around the world.

Prosecutors said the documents, three of which Mr. Drake created himself and two of which were printed from the NSA internal intranet, contained material classified as “secret” or “top secret.”

Defense lawyers argued, according to court documents and one of Mr. Drake’s attorneys, that the documents do not contain classified information and that Mr. Drake created them as part of his submission to the Defense Department inspector general, who was investigating accusations of organizational failures and mismanagement of the Trailblazer program.

Mr. Drake told the CBS “60 Minutes” program last month that he and others at the agency had pushed an alternative to Trailblazer called Thin Thread - a revolutionary computer system designed to collect, identify and connect data points such as phone or bank account numbers from the vast stream of digital information the NSA was sucking up.

“Thin Thread was fundamentally dedicated to collecting and processing and ultimately analyzing the vast reams of digital data. It was a breakthrough solution,” Mr. Drake told CBS.

When Thin Thread was rejected by NSA managers in favor of Trailblazer, and Trailblazer later failed, Mr. Drake and his colleagues worked with a staff member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to get the inspector general to launch an investigation. When the resulting report was classified, he said, he went to the news media - reaching out through an anonymous email account to Ms. Gorman.

But he said he only agreed to communicate with the Baltimore Sun reporter on condition that she did not seek any classified information from him.

“That was one of the fundamental rules. Whether it was oral communication, whether it was written, electronic or, later on, even in hard copy. It was all unclassified. Period,” he said.

• Shaun Waterman can be reached at 123@example.com.

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