NSA case unlikely to deter Obama’s take on leakers

The Associated Press reports:

Criminal defendants of all stripes in national security cases, including Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North in the Iran-Contra affair and al-Qaida terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, have long sought to work government secrets into their defense.

The hope is the prosecutors will skip a trial rather than expose sensitive information in court.

This strategy worked perfectly in the just concluded leak case against a former National Security Agency official, Thomas Drake. But civil libertarians doubt the setback for prosecutors will halt the Obama administration’s vigorous legal attack on leakers, and the government shows no signs of backing off other cases.

After all, the strategy of threatening to expose secrets at trial to ward off charges has a decidedly mixed history for national security defendants. The practice is known as graymailing the government.

Drake pleaded guilty Friday in federal court in Baltimore to a single misdemeanor charge in a deal with prosecutors that avoided a trial in the case accusing Drake of passing classified material to a Baltimore Sun reporter.

Drake had faced up to 35 years in prison had he gone to trial and been convicted. The lesser charge carries a penalty of up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine.

Drake’s defense was that he was a whistleblower exposing waste in an NSA program called TrailBlazer. That ill-fated effort was to have overhauled the agency’s vast computer systems to capture and screen information flooding into the agency from the Internet and cell phones. Begun in 2002, the project eventually cost $1.2 billion, but never worked as intended and was scrapped in 2006.

For more on the case, read Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article, “The Secret Sharer.”

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