A 40-year-old Navy cryptography expert, formerly based at the National Security Agency, has been arrested on espionage charges after admitting that he mailed a computer floppy disk containing U.S. secrets to Russian officials.
News of the arrest followed reports in Russia and Europe that Moscow had arrested a U.S. diplomat at the embassy there and accused her of spying. U.S. officials declined to say whether there is a connection between the events.
In the NSA case, Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel M. King, apparently despondent over a failing marriage and a stalled Navy career, confessed after failing a lie detector test during a routine security clearance review last summer. He was arrested Oct. 28 in Washington and charged a week later with espionage and wrongful disclosure of classified information, a Navy spokesman, Lt. Matt O'Neal, said yesterday.
Asked about the seriousness of the disclosure, a senior Pentagon official said it depends on what was on the disk. "Zero to 100? It could be a two; it could be a 90."
At one point, King reportedly told investigators that the information included details of U.S. submarines tapping into Russian communications cables.
"He downloaded some information on a disk and he sent the disk," the senior Pentagon official said. "He admitted to some things and then he changed his story a couple of times. It's 'what did you send?' that's the difficulty. He's never been that specific, and that's the maddening part." King appears to be forgetful, though he is cooperating, the official said.
NSA spokeswoman Judi Emmel said: "We're not answering any questions on that."
The Navy and NSA had kept quiet about King's arrest until CBS News broke the story Monday night. That followed European reports that on Monday evening, Moscow had briefly detained Cheri Leberknight, the second secretary in the U.S. Embassy's political section, for questioning by the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the Soviet KGB. Russian security officials accused Leberknight of working for the CIA and trying to collect secret military information from a Russian citizen.
King's arrest resulted from a joint investigation by counterintelligence agents with the FBI and the Navy's investigative arm, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
A pretrial investigation will be conducted in the coming weeks, followed by an Article 32 hearing, the Navy's equivalent of a grand jury hearing. If King is indicted at that hearing, he would face a court martial and could be sentenced to death. He is being held at the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Va.
King, an 18-year Navy veteran from Elyria, Ohio, reportedly was bitter that he had not been promoted to chief petty officer. The espionage allegedly occurred in 1994, when he worked for the Naval Security Group at NSA's headquarters in Fort Meade, helping the spy agency intercept the electronic messages of foreign nations. Since then, he has held sensitive positions with the Navy's Atlantic Command in Norfolk, Va., and at the Naval Communications Station in Guam.
King was to return soon to Fort Meade and was undergoing a routine renewal of his security clearance, conducted before job changes, when he failed a polygraph test administered on Guam by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
King apparently stumbled over a few of the questions related to his knowledge of spying.
"They started asking more questions and the questions got narrower and narrower, and then he finally confessed and said he did this one-time thing," a Navy official said.
King told investigators he had mailed information to the Russians but didn't recall exactly what was on the disk, according to a senior Pentagon official. Navy investigators are trying to figure out what position he held and what information he had access to when he sent the information.
Another Pentagon official said that at the end of King's three-year stint at Fort Meade, he stopped at a Glen Burnie post office and mailed a 3 1/2-inch floppy disk to the Russian Embassy in Washington. He followed up with a phone call two years later but apparently never received any money in exchange for the information. A review of King's bank records found nothing suspicious, and officials believe it to have been a one-time breach, not an ongoing leak of information.
Though investigators were trying to determine exactly what was on the disk, the Pentagon official said it was probably related to U.S. intelligence-gathering techniques and not the type of information that could jeopardize lives or seriously threaten national security.
The espionage case comes at a time of strained relations between the United States and Russia, attributed mainly to the U.S.-led bombing in the former Yugoslavia this spring and Moscow's military campaign in Chechnya.
At a briefing yesterday in Washington, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin confirmed the detainment of the U.S. diplomat in Moscow but declined to say whether there was a connection between that arrest and King's.
If convicted, King's name will join the list of U.S. technical specialists who vented anger or frustration -- over their jobs, their marriages, their bank accounts -- by selling U.S. secrets to Russia.
Last year, Army Sgt. David S. Boone -- divorced, in debt and angry -- was charged with selling NSA documents to a man named "Igor" at the Russian Embassy. Notorious NSA spy Ronald Pelton disclosed a project that intercepted Soviet communications from a cable on the Pacific Ocean floor.
The most infamous Navy spy, John A. Walker Jr., is serving a life sentence for passing Navy secrets to the Soviet Embassy and KGB from 1967 to 1985.
King, who has two children, was in the midst of a divorce.
Wire service reports contributed to this article.