When Congress Blamed the White House for the al-Qaeda Leak

A former federal agent who pled guilty to having child porn turns out to be the Rosetta Stone that explains a sprawling two-year administration controversy.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Remember when President Obama's second term was going to be defined -- and destroyed -- by scandals like IRS scrutiny of Tea Party groups and the Justice Department pawing through Associated Press phone records? Think back, back before Edwards Snowden and the NSA revelations, the Syria crisis, the threat of a government shutdown over defunding Obamacare, and the possibility of a U.S. default in a debt-ceiling showdown.

Back in the mists of spring, when the grass was new and blossoms hung thick about the cherry trees, there was a concerted effort, partially run out of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to directly tie White House political staff to objectionable goings-on in other parts of the sprawling federal government, such as the IRS.

Except it wasn't actually a new GOP strategy. Long before the IRS scandal fell apart amid revelations that progressive groups had been targeted too -- information that hadn't been covered in the inspector general's report because of narrow instructions from Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa -- Republican members of Congress accused White House staffers of leaking information about a foiled al-Qaeda bomb plot in order to bolster the president's case for reelection.

"It has to be for re-election," said Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, in June 2012. "They can deny it all they want. But it would require a suspension of disbelief to believe it's not being done for political purposes."

John McCain, now an episodic ally of the administration but at the time still a leading critic of the man who beat him in 2008, took the same tack. "I think it's very clear that these leaks came from the White House, people within the White House itself, and these people are very politically oriented,” he alleged on CNN.

Now it turns out the leaker is a former FBI agent whose name will be familiar to close readers of Washington newspapers because of his May 2012 arrest on charges of possessing child pornography, including approximately 30 images and videos of girls under age 12, and trading images online using the handle pedodave69@yahoo.com. A retired bomb technician and former FBI special agent, Donald Sachtleben was working as a government contractor with top-secret clearance when he was arrested on the child-porn charges in Indiana.

On Monday, he pled guilty to providing a media outlet, identified in reports as the Associated Press, with classified information on the foiled bomb plot nine days before his child-porn arrest. He pled guilty in the child-porn case in April. According to the FBI:

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. This allowed investigators to obtain a search warrant authorizing a more exhaustive search of Sachtleben’s cell phone, computer, and other electronic media, which were in the possession of federal investigators due to the child pornography investigation.

That makes him a kind of Rosetta Stone for understanding some of the administration controversies of 2012 and 2013, when it was revealed that the Justice Department had, in an excess of prosecutorial zeal, secretly subpoenaed the phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors in an attempt to find the bomb-plot leaker.

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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