WASHINGTON -- A federal grand jury has begun investigating the leak of classified information about intelligence programs to the media and has subpoenaed a former National Security Agency employee who claims to have witnessed illegal activity while working at the agency.
The employee, Russell D. Tice, 44, of Linthicum, Md., said two FBI agents approached on Wednesday and handed him the subpoena, which requires him to testify next Wednesday before a grand jury in Alexandria, Va. The subpoena, which Tice made public yesterday, says the investigation covers "possible violation of federal criminal laws involving the unauthorized disclosure of classified information." It specifically mentions the Espionage Act.
For months, the FBI has been looking into disclosures of secret intelligence operations, including The New York Times' reports in December about the NSA's domestic surveillance program and The Washington Post's articles on the CIA's overseas jails for suspected terrorists. But the subpoena is the first public confirmation that a grand jury has begun to hear evidence.
The decision to compel testimony before a grand jury is an indication of the seriousness of the inquiry. The Eastern District of Virginia has often been chosen by the Justice Department for national security cases because the court is generally thought to be favorable to the government.
Leaks about secret counter-terrorist programs, and the decision of The New York Times and other news media outlets to publish information on them, have been roundly denounced by President Bush and other administration officials. Some civil libertarians have defended the leaks as the acts of conscience on the part of government workers trying to stop illegal or unethical government activities.
Tice said in a telephone interview yesterday that he believed that the leak investigation and subpoena were designed to discourage whistle-blowers. "I feel this is an intimidation tactic aimed at me and anyone who's considering dropping a dime on criminal activity by the government," he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union denounced the subpoena as part of an attempt to cover up government wrongdoing.
"Courageous federal employees like Mr. Tice who bring hidden truths to light, letting lawmakers and the American people know when official misconduct has occurred, perform a valuable public service," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU's legislative office in Washington.
A Justice Department official, who would discuss the confidential criminal investigation only on condition of anonymity, said that the leak inquiry was in a preliminary investigative phase and that no journalist had been subpoenaed to testify. The official said federal agents had interviewed officials at a number of intelligence agencies about their contacts with reporters at The Times and other news organizations.
Tice was dismissed last year from his job as a space systems specialist at the NSA, the eavesdropping agency based at Fort Meade, Md., where he worked on top-secret satellite intelligence collection programs. In a 20-year career, he also worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency and in Air Force intelligence.
By his account, his troubles began after he raised questions inside the agency about various NSA activities. Eventually, he said, agency officials questioned his mental health and stripped him of the security clearance he needed for intelligence work.
He said that his mental health was "perfect" and that his dismissal was retaliation for his whistle-blowing. He said he was now doing housing construction work.
Tice said that he had discussed unclassified information about the NSA with reporters for The New York Times and other publications, but that he had always been careful not to reveal classified information to the news media.