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Former NSA official makes plea deal in leak investigation

By Carol Cratty, CNN
  • Prosecutors agree to drop more serious charges
  • Thomas Drake faces up to one year in jail
  • Drake says he was acting as a whistleblower

Washington (CNN) -- A former National Security Agency official has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of intentionally exceeding authorized use of a NSA computer as federal prosecutors agreed to drop more serious charges which carried maximum penalties of 35 years in prison.

Prosecutors had accused Thomas Drake, 54, of leaking information to a reporter and charged him last year in a 10-count indictment of willful retention of national defense information, obstruction of justice and making false statements.

Drake entered his guilty plea in federal court in Baltimore on Friday after prosecutors decided they could not pursue the other charges in the controversial leak case.

The Justice Department said rulings by the judge in Drake's case that classified information would have to be presented in open court caused them to drop the more serious felony charges, including some that fell under the Espionage Act.

"The NSA concluded that such disclosure would harm national security," a DOJ news release said.

Lanny Breuer, assistant attorney general for the department's Criminal Division, said, "Individuals who are granted special access to our nation's most sensitive information cannot unilaterally decide to disregard the law and agreements they make with the government on how that information may be handled."

Drake will be sentenced in July and faces up to a year in jail. But as part of a plea agreement the government agreed not to push for Drake to serve any jail time, and it's likely he may only be required to face a period of supervised release.

In a statement of facts, Drake admitted to accessing the NSA's intranet site from approximately February 2006 through March 2007 where he "obtained official NSA information, and provided said information orally and in writing to another person not permitted or authorized" to receive it.

"This is a just result. Tom Drake never should have been charged under the Espionage Act," said Debbie Boardman and Jim Wyda, defense lawyers for Drake. "Tom never intended to harm his country. And he didn't."

Drake has maintained he was acting as a whistleblower who raised objections to some of NSA's actions within NSA, to Congress and to a Defense Department Inspector General. According to the Washington Post, he was concerned about a $1.2 billion dollar data-sifting program called Trailblazer and about NSA efforts to collect Americans' e-mail and phone call information without court orders in a controversial data-mining program.

In April, Drake was awarded the Ridenhour Truth-Telling Prize given to whistleblowers and investigative journalists. He gave a speech saying he was unwilling to "turn a blind eye to massive fraud, waste and abuse simply because the government has the power to do so, hiding behind the veil of secrecy."

Meanwhile, the federal government is pursuing several other leak investigations. The one that has garnered the most public attention centers on the hundreds of thousands of Defense Department and State Department documents obtained by Wikileaks.