UPDATE 1-US leak case ends with guilty plea to minor offense

Fri Jun 10, 2011 1:34pm EDT

* No prison time sought for former top NSA official

* Drake had been accused of leaks to newspaper reporter (Adds comment by Drake's attorneys, paragraph 6, case number)

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON, June 10 (Reuters) - A former National Security Agency official pleaded guilty on Friday to a minor offense in a deal in which the U.S. Justice Department agreed to drop more serious charges about possessing and leaking classified information to a newspaper reporter.

Thomas Drake, 54, pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court in Baltimore to a single, less serious misdemeanor count of exceeding his authorized use of a NSA computer in 2006 and 2007, the Justice Department said.

The deal was reached after the judge in the case ruled that the U.S. government's efforts to protect classified information in certain evidence that prosecutors planned to use at trial hampered the defense. As a result, prosecutors said they would not use some of it.

Under the plea deal, the Justice Department agreed to drop all 10 more serious previous criminal charges against Drake accusing him of illegally possessing classified information, obstructing the investigation into the leaks and lying to the FBI.

His case was among a number of Obama administration prosecutions of current or former U.S. officials suspected of leaking classified information to the news media.

Defense lawyers Debbie Boardman and Jim Wyda said the dismissal of the indictment was a just result. "Tom Drake never should have been charged under the Espionage Act. Tom never intended to harm his country. And he didn't," they said in a statement.

Drake was employed by NSA from August 2001 through April 2008 and was a high-ranking official. The NSA, which has its headquarters at Fort Meade in Maryland, is one of the U.S. intelligence agencies.

Prosecutors had accused him of discussing classified information with a Baltimore Sun newspaper reporter, but Drake denied providing her any classified information.

Some of the stories by the reporter, Siobhan Gorman, who now works at the Wall Street Journal, involved problems with NSA's secret surveillance programs.

'NO AUTHORIZATION'

Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, head of the department's criminal division, said in a statement, "Today, Thomas Drake admitted that he illegally accessed classified NSA computer systems to obtain information that he then provided to another person who had no authorization to receive it."

In the plea deal, the Justice Department agreed not to seek any prison time for Drake, who had previously faced up to 35 years. The deal also ended the need for a trial, which had been scheduled to start on Monday.

The Justice Department also has been investigating Wikileaks founder Julian Assange for leaking classified U.S. diplomatic cables and U.S. military information about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The result in the NSA case was widely seen as a setback for the Obama administration's efforts to prosecute leaks of classified information. The previous Bush administration also encountered similar problems in leak cases.

"This is a victory for national security whistle-blowers," said Jesselyn Radack, a former Justice Department official who now works at the Government Accountability Project, a group that has helped represent Drake.

Groups supporting whistle-blowers and openness in government criticized the Drake prosecution at a meeting with President Barack Obama earlier this year, but he defended it by saying classified information cannot be disclosed, a U.S. official said.

The sentencing date is scheduled for July 15.

The case is USA v. Thomas Drake, No. 10-cr-181 in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.

(Editing by Will Dunham)

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