Last week, a former U.S. intelligence official who had been charged with mishandling sensitive information obtained through his position at the National Security Agency pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of "exceeding the authorized use of a computer." The charge was a lesser offense than the original charges leveled under the Espionage Act and for false statements.
According to the man's attorney, the original charges were an overreach by the Justice Department, and he expressed hope that this case will put an end to using the Espionage act to target "leakers" who are oftentimes whistleblowers against government agencies.
The man had reportedly been hired the National Security Agency several years back as a computer expert whose job was to modernize the agency and update its filing system. As an employee of the agency, he had top secret clearance to classified information. According to the Los Angeles Times, the man was indicted last year for retaining classified information, and prosecutors alleged he then passed the information off to journalist in 2006 and 2007, who authored a number of articles dealing with waste and mismanagement at the National Security Agency. That journalist, according to sources, now works for the Wall Street Journal.
The man claimed in his defense that he did not provide the journalist classified information, and that any classified information he handed over was given to investigators in regard to a whistleblower investigation of wasteful practices in the agency.
According to sources, He was never charged with leaking information, though his prosecution is viewed by many as a message from the Obama administration to discourage leaks. His case is one of five currently being pursued by the federal government, and is part of a larger strategy to shut down unauthorized disclosures of information, according to government advocates.
Under the original 10-count indictment, the man could have faced over 30 years in prison. The misdemeanor charge carries a maximum penalty of one year in federal prison, but prosecutors have apparently expressed that they are not opposed to a "noncustodial" sentence.
Sentencing is scheduled for July 15, at which time the Department of Justice will dismiss the more serious charges against the man.
Source: Los Angeles Times, "Former NSA employee pleads guilty to lesser charge in leak case," Tricia Bishop, 11 June 2011.