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Ex-U.S. official gets probation in NSA leaking case

A former senior spy agency official who admitting giving inside information to The Baltimore Sun about a major government electronic espionage program was given a year’s probation and community service Friday, in a blow to the Obama Administration’s crackdown on leaks to the media.

The judge rejected the government’s request for a stiff fine and scolded prosecutors for the way the case was handled.

Outside the courtroom, Thomas Drake, a 54-year-old former executive with the National Security Administration who now works at a Washington-area Apple Store, told reporters he felt relieved and vindicated by the lenient sentence. “Justice did prevail in the end, proving the truth does matter,” he said.

Drake said he had been “personally and professionally shattered” by the government’s investigation and prosecution, which he called “vindictive and malicious.” He said investigators put his life, as well as the life of his family and friends, under intense scrutiny. “We’re talking about a microscope that’s set at a very high power of resolution,” he said.

The prosecution asked at the sentencing hearing for a $50,000 fine against Drake, who last year was indicted on 10 felony counts under an espionage statue, but who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor — exceeding his authorized access in his use of a government computer system — after the government’s case collapsed last month.

Prosecutors withdrew the felony charges after they disagreed with the judge’s about what information could and could not be disclosed during the trial.

U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett said the crime Drake admitted to was “significant” and that Drake had exercised poor judgment in going to the media with his concerns about the NSA program. Like all other NSA employees, Drake had signed an agreement not to talk publicly about his work for the secretive agency, based at Fort Meade.

But Bennett rejected the government’s request for a fine, and instead criticized the Justice Department for the 2 ½ year delay between the day FBI agents raided Drake’s Maryland home and the date a federal grand jury returned its indictment.

Bennett also scolded the government for dropping the 10 felony counts three days before Drake’s trial was scheduled to begin. Bennett said the government had put Drake through “four years of hell” without bringing him to trial. “It was not proper,” Bennett said. “It does not pass the smell test.”

Prosecutor William Welch argued that Bennett needed to levy a substantial fine to deter other would-be leakers. Thousands of NSA employees who go to work every day abide by their pledges not to disclose information, Welch said. “Does their obligation that they live by every single day have any meaning?” he asked.

But Bennett dismissed those arguments, noting Drake had lost his prestigious job, his pension and his top secret clearance, and had spent years not knowing if he would be charged with a crime. “No one would want to switch places with Tom Drake,” Bennett said.

Bennett also ordered Drake to perform 240 hours of community service.

Despite last month’s plea deal, the administration is still pursuing spy charges in three other leak cases. The crackdown has broad, bipartisan government support. But whistleblower groups say officials accused of leaking to the media should not be prosecuted as though they were spies for a foreign government.