A former senior executive with the National Security Agency has been indicted on 10 felony charges related to the alleged leaking of classified information to a national newspaper in 2006 and 2007, the Justice Department announced Thursday morning.
Thomas A. Drake, 52, headed an office in the NSA’s signals intelligence and engineering directorates at Fort Meade between 2001 and 2005, U.S. officials said. The indictment alleges that Drake exchanged hundreds of e-mails with a reporter for a national newspaper and served as a source for its articles about Bush administration intelligence policies and agency management failures between February 2006 and November 2007, U.S. officials said.
According to the indictment, Drake had access to highly classified documents and information, and he provided some of that information to the reporter.
The indictment does not name the reporter, but The Washington Post has learned that she was Siobhan Gorman, a prize-winning intelligence correspondent for the Baltimore Sun at the time and subsequently at the Wall Street Journal. Gorman published a string of articles that spotlighted poor management of NSA facilities and its failure to set priorities.
Justin Elliott at TPM:
The indictment alleges that NSA senior executive Thomas Drake was connected to the reporter via a mutual friend who was a congressional staffer. Through accounts on the private email communication service Hushmail, Drake and the reporter allegedly exchanged hundreds of emails. He allegedly scanned and emailed “electronic copies of classified and unclassified documents to the reporter.”
The indictment alleges that the reporter agreed to refer to Drake as a “senior intelligence official” and that the articles were published between roughly Feb. 27, 2006, and Nov. 28, 2007.
Gorman covered the NSA, which focuses on communications intelligence and is based in Fort Meade, Maryland, during that period. On Feb. 26, 2006, she penned a piece headlined “Computer ills hinder NSA.” It began:
“WASHINGTON — Two technology programs at the heart of the National Security Agency’s drive to combat 21st-century threats are stumbling badly, hampering the agency’s ability to fight terrorism and other emerging threats, current and former government officials say.”
And continued: “A former NSA employee put it more bluntly, as he explained why he was speaking to a reporter for the first time, though on the condition of anonymity: ‘What I am fearful of is: Because of all this, we will have a 9/11 Part II.’
So a new source at NSA speaking to a reporter for an article published at the end of February 2006 is a match. The other bookend is November 2007, when Gorman wrote “Targeting Internet terror,” building on an earlier Sun exclusive about a classified NSA cyber-security initiative. Shortly thereafter, Gorman moved to the Wall Street Journal—where she continues to do absolutely groundbreaking national security reporting. I note that in both cases, the stories involve classified information about NSA activities, but not sensitive and compartmentalized interception programs, which Drake would have been unlikely to have access to. The stories that match the indictment timeline, in other words, are also stories on which Drake makes sense as a source. No doubt we’ll find out for certain soon enough.
Update: I see that Scott Shane at the New York Times came to the same conclusion I did; his article pretty much takes for granted that the articles referenced are from Gorman’s stint at the Sun.
How did that happen? For starters, cyberspace is not completely anonymous. Even if Hushmail’s encryption system were foolproof, webmail systems usually record the IP addresses of their users, which would allow investigators to confirm that the NSA official was using the service — and perhaps to associate the timing of the emails to the reporter’s stories, or even her own Hushmail use. (I’m assuming the leaker used his home or, if he’s an idiot, his work computer; but even if he went to a cybercafe or wifi-enabled hotel lobby, it would still be possible to trace him with a bit of work.)
Armed with that information, it wouldn’t be hard to obtain an order forcing disclosure of the content of the official’s emails, since leaking classified information is a crime. Legally, that order would go through Canadian officials and courts, but in the end it would be served on Hushmail and honored. As Hushmail has acknowledged, it has the ability to decrypt mail sent to its server when it receives a valid court order.
I think we’ll see more cases like this. In my experience, most leakers, even of highly classified material, are motivated by surprisingly petty interests – things like spite, flattery, and a desire to win intramural debates by other means. It’s not that the rewards of leaking are so great; it’s that the downside risk seems so small. For the same reason, leakers often don’t use world-class tradecraft to protect themselves; they are protected largely by the perception, inside government and out, that leakers cannot be caught.
But that’s no longer true. We leave a much longer transactional trail in cyberspace than Deep Throat ever did. And mainstream media is losing the financial and publicity clout it once used to protect leakers and reporters from investigation. Brought by the Obama administration to punish leaks that hurt NSA in the last administration, this case could mark the end of an era — one that only really began in 1971, with the publication of the Pentagon Papers.
Kudos to the DoJ for pursuing the leaker. Having the Obama administration press this case makes it even stronger, I believe. It eliminates any hint of retribution and puts it firmly in the frame of violating our national security. If Drake is guilty, he had other options than leaking to the Times if he disagreed with the operations at the NSA. He could have gone to the White House, or failing that, to the leadership of the intelligence committees in Congress, which certainly would have provided him with an audience. Instead, the leaker (whoever he is) kneecapped our ability to track terrorists and politicized national security unnecessarily.
WHERE ARE THOSE LONG-FORGOTTEN TALKING POINTS WHEN WE NEED THEM? There was a time when something like this, especially from The Captain, would set me off or turn me gray:
Oddly, though, the same people who expressed outrage over the exposure of Valerie Plame as a CIA analyst never got terribly exercised over these breaches of national security (and to be fair, the same holds true in reverse).
Ahhh! There has never been evidence that Richard Armitage, Scooter Libby, Karl Rove, Ari Fleischer or anyone else thought that they were revealing a Big Secret when they mentioned that Joe Wilson had been picked by his wife to check out a story from Niger. Nor is there evidence that Bob Novak thought it was particularly consequential when he published it. Nor is there evidence that it was in fact consequential, other than as a political club for beating Republicans.
But it is quite clear (at least, from my seat here on the right) that some of the Times outings were unhelpful.
John Hinderaker at Powerline:
Unfortunately, Drake’s leaks don’t appear to be the ones that threatened national security. Rather, they put NSA’s bureaucracy in an unflattering light:
Gorman’s coverage of NSA often placed an unflattering focus on NSA administrators. An August 2006 story quoted intelligence officials as showing that the NSA eavesdropping facilities in Fort Meade were at risk of paralysis because of electrical overload and potential failure of the power supply.
We’re not the only ones who wonder why this should be the Justice Department’s priority:
By comparison, some federal officials have questioned privately why the New York Times’ revelation about domestic wiretapping that bypassed a special surveillance court has not led to any leak prosecutions.
In what must be one more disappointment for Obama supporters, the administration has promised to be “more aggressive” than the Bush administration about going after leakers. Even if, as it appears here, they are the wrong ones.