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Ex-spy agency official faces sentencing

A former senior National Security Agency executive faces sentencing Friday in one of a series of criminal cases the Obama administration has pursued against government officials accused of giving classified information to the media.

Thomas Drake, 54, is expected to receive a year’s probation in U.S. District Court here after pleading guilty to a single misdemeanor in the case. He was originally charged with multiple felonies under the Espionage Act that could have sent him to prison for the rest of his life.

President Barack Obama has pursued five criminal cases against officials accused of leaking under espionage statutes, more than all of his predecessors combined.

The crackdown on leaks has broad bipartisan support in Congress. But legal experts and open government advocates question whether those who disclose classified information to the media should face the same charges as spies for foreign governments.

‘Straightest arrow I’ve ever known’

Drake has admitted giving The Baltimore Sun inside information about the NSA’s Trailblazer project, an effort by the electronic spying agency in the early 2000s to overhaul its computer systems to handle the flood of data in the Internet age. But Drake said he didn’t knowingly disclose classified information, and that his only aim was to expose what he considered to be a boondoggle that set back U.S. efforts to gather intelligence on terrorist and other threats.

The felony case against Drake fell apart in June when the government balked at putting classified documents into evidence as ordered by the court. In a plea deal, Drake pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor charge of unauthorized access.

Drake speaks fluent German, is a decorated veteran of the Air Force and Navy reserve intelligence services, and flew classified surveillance missions over Europe during the Cold War.

His lawyers argue in court filings that the father of four has already been punished severely for his crime. After the FBI raided Drake’s Maryland home in November 2007, they say, he was stripped of his security clearance, forced to resign from the agency and shunned by many colleagues in the intelligence community. He has also lost 20 pounds and been forced to take out a second mortgage on his home to pay more than $82,000 in attorney’s fees.

When a federal grand jury indicted Drake under the Espionage Act last year, his lawyers say, he was fired from a university job teaching political science and was forced to find work at an Apple Store in suburban Washington. In court filings, co-workers at the store praised him as “hard-working,” ”brilliant” and “a good honest man.”

One former colleague called him “the straightest arrow I have ever known,” someone who could be described by the phrase: “He Follows the Rules.”