Years of government pursuit came to an end Friday when former NSA employee Thomas Drake pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of "exceeding the authorized use of a computer" — a quiet conclusion to an aggressive espionage case.
Drake, who warned government investigators about wasteful National Security Agency programs, was indicted last year for passing information to a Baltimore Sun reporter in 2006 and 2007.
He could have received up to 35 years in federal prison under a combination of criminal charges, including violation of the Espionage Act, yet he was never charged with leaking classified information. The deal came together as public pressure for leniency mounted and the June 13 trial date neared.
"It's breathtaking, and a week ago, I would have said it was impossible," said Steven Aftergood, who studies government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. "I expected the trial to begin on Monday, and a last-minute reversal like this is stunning. What it tells me is that the government miscalculated the strength of its own case."
The Department of Justice said it negotiated the plea in part to avoid having to release classified information through the trial.
"We must always strike the careful balance between holding accountable those who break our laws, while not disclosing highly sensitive information," Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer said in a statement.
Drake, who declined through a lawyer to comment, could receive a maximum of one year in federal prison at his July 15 sentencing in U.S. District Court, though prosecutors said Friday that they will not oppose a "noncustodial" sentence — meaning one that does not include prison time.
Still, Drake's life is vastly changed, said Jesselyn Radack, a consultant on the case and a director at the Government Accountability Project, which advocates for whistle-blowers. His intelligence career is over, his finances are drained and he is personally spent, she said.
Drake's Espionage Act case, which began under the Bush administration and continued under President Barack Obama, is one of five being pursued by the federal government in court, and part of a larger strategy to shut down unauthorized disclosures of information. But many said the Drake case was an overreach.
"This [case] should never have been brought," said James Bamford, who wrote a book on NSA spying failures and was a consultant on Drake's criminal case. He declined to comment further, concerned about making public statements before sentencing.
Drake has had his say in The New Yorker and on "60 Minutes." Some NSA analysts and various advocacy groups have also taken up his cause, blogging about case developments, pointing out apparent flaws and circulating petitions asking for dismissal of the charges.
"He owes a massive debt of gratitude to the Fourth Estate, which really went to bat for him," along with his federal public defenders, said Matthew M. Aid, who's written one book on the NSA and just completed another about Obama's relationship with the intelligence community, due out early next year.
Aid said he interviewed several of Drake's supervisors for the book and concluded that Drake has a kind of "Jesus mentality where [he's] right, and everybody else is wrong," explaining Drake's assumption of the role of whistle-blower.
Drake and several others complained of waste in an NSA antiterrorism technology program called Trailblazer in 2002 to the Department of Defense inspector general. And Drake said in court filings that he later discussed NSA issues with Sun reporter Siobhan Gorman, who now works for The Wall Street Journal. Drake said he never gave Gorman classified documents, however.
Gorman published a series of articles in The Sun about NSA mismanagement and problematic programs, including Trailblazer.
Radack and Drake's lawyers believe that the indictment against Drake was payback for whistle-blowing.
In a joint statement released Friday, Drake's federal public defenders, Deborah Boardman and James Wyda, said Drake "never should have been charged under the Espionage Act."
"Tom never intended to harm his country. And he didn't," they said. "We are grateful that Tom and his family can start to put this frightening chapter behind them."