NSA Employee Indicted for 'Trailblazer' Leaks


In 2006 and 2007, Siobhan Gorman, a highly regarded intelligence reporter for the Baltimore Sun, wrote a series of articles about how the National Security Agency was (mis)managing a highly sensitive, very expensive collection program known as Trailblazer. Relying on interviews with current and former senior intelligence officials as well as internal documents, Gorman was able to show that the NSA's "state-of-the art tool for sifting through an ocean of modern-day digital communications" was a boondoggle of sorts -- and that the agency had removed several of the privacy safeguards that were put in place to protect domestic conversations and e-mails from being stored and monitored. A program known as "Thin Thread," which had proved its worth to the NSA before 9/11 and which contained several civil liberties safeguards, was abandoned in favor of Trailblazer because the latter program, according to Gorman's sources, "had more political support" and was a favorite of then NSA-director Michael Hayden's.

A former National Security Agency executive was outed as the main source for Gorman's articles today. Thomas Drake, a long-time agency contractor and employee, allegedly provided Gorman with excerpts from highly classified documents, including a classified inspector general report that Gorman referenced in one of her articles that described the Trailblazer's programs problems and inefficiencies. Notably, the indictment does NOT charge Drake with leaking information -- just with the "willful retention of classified information, obstruction of justice and making false statements." 

NSA employees were notified about the indictment this morning.

The indictment does not identify Gorman, known as "reporter A," although the context makes it clear that the events describe her stories. According to the indictment, Drake began to interact with Gorman after a friend of Drake's, described as a former congressional official with whom Drake had an "emotional" relationship, suggested that he contact Gorman. Drake then set up an account with the "Hushmail" e-mail service, and using a pseudonym encouraged Gorman to do so as well. The e-mail accounts served as a mechanism to facilitate the exchange of information. Drake also met with Gorman six times, the indictment alleges. Drake also allegedly helped Gorman in:

- researching stories for the reporter to write in the future by e-mailing unwitting NSA employees and accessing classified and unclassified documents on classified NSA networks;
- copying and pasting classified and unclassified information from NSA documents into untitled word processing documents which, when printed, had the classification markings removed; 
- printing both classified and unclassified documents, bringing them to his home, and retaining them there without authority;
- scanning and emailing electronic copies of classified and unclassified documents to the reporter from his home computer; and
- reviewing, commenting on, and editing drafts of the reporter's articles. 

The indictment does not say how or when the NSA was first tipped to Drake's activities. The level of detail, and the lack of any reference to any corroborating source suggests that Drake himself began to cooperate with authorities and provided the details himself.

An e-mail to Gorman, who now works for the Wall Street Journal, was referred to the Journal's legal department, which declined to comment. The indictment does not suggest or imply that Gorman herself assisted the investigation in any way, or that she is in any legal jeopardy.

Drake faces up to 40 years in prison.

It's very unusual for the government to bring a case like this, and it's telling that the charges do not include the act of actually leaking classified information. That may be an effort to prevent Drake from introducing sensitive information about the program at trial -- which is one reason why these types of cases are rarely brought in the first place. Or, perhaps, prosecutors agreed not to charge Drake with the most serious charge provided he provide explicit detail about everything he did.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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