A former FBI agent will plead guilty to leaking classified information to an Associated Press reporter about a foiled terrorist bomb plot in Yemen last year that was meant take down an airplane flying to the United States, the Justice Department said Monday.
Donald Sachtleben, a former bomb technician and government contractor, had passed on information about an Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operation that the US government had infiltrated, according to court documents.
Sachtleben agreed to serve three years and seven months in prison for the leak as part of a plea agreement filed in the US District Court in Indiana.
In a strange turn, Sachtleben had already been under investigation for possession of child pornography, charges to which he will also plead guilty.
The case, which officials have called one of the worst national security leaks in history, marks the eighth leak-related prosecution in Obama's tenure. There have been only three similar prosecutions in all other administrations.
There are two points of controversy here. First, federal investigators had secretly acquired two months of AP reporters phone logs to identify Sachtleben.
"Sachtleben was identified as a suspect in the case of this unauthorized disclosure only after toll records for phone numbers related to the reporter were obtained through a subpoena and compared to other evidence collected during the leak investigation,” the Justice Department said.
Journalists and some members of Congress on both sides of the isle heavily criticized the move, with some saying the scope of the probe was unjustified.
"There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of the AP and its reporters," AP President Gary Truitt had previsouly said.
The other point is that, according to officials, the leak disclosed national defense information and came during a dangerous intelligence operation that possibly blew a double agent's cover and involved wanted al Qaeda bomb maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri.
“This prosecution demonstrates our deep resolve to hold accountable anyone who would violate their solemn duty to protect our nation’s secrets, and to prevent future, potentially devastating leaks by those who would wantonly ignore their obligations to safeguard classified information,” said Ronald C. Machen Jr., the US attorney for the District of Columbia.
Sachtleben said he was sorry for leaking information in a statement released by his lawyer, Larry A. Mackey.
“I am deeply sorry for my actions,” Sachtleben said. “While I never intended harm to the US or to any individuals, I do not make excuses for myself. I understand and accept that today’s filings start the process of paying the full consequences of my misconduct, and I know that the justice system I once served so proudly will have its say.”
The AP did not comment on Sachtleben's charges.
“We never comment on our sources,” said AP's director of media relations, Paul Colford.