The leak probe that resulted in the Obama administration seizing Associated Press phone records isn't entirely finished, despite the charges announced Monday against a former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, a federal law enforcement official tells U.S. News.
Prosecutors announced Monday that Donald Sachtleben, an FBI agent from 1983-2008 and an FBI contractor from 2008-2012, agreed to a plead guilty to illegally retaining and disclosing national defense information to an AP reporter on May 2, 2012. He informed the reporter there was a foiled al-Qaida terror plot on the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death.
Sachtleben agreed to accept 43 months in prison for the leak. He's the eighth person prosecuted by the Obama administration for allegedly violating the Espionage Act of 1917 by speaking with reporters.
The story that prompted the probe was a May 7, 2012, report by The Associated Press, which revealed the White House and Department of Homeland Security incorrectly claimed there was no credible terror threat on the anniversary of bin Laden's death. In truth, there was a terror plot to blow up a U.S.-bound airplane using a difficult-to-detect bomb.
But the arguably more damaging piece of information – that an undercover agent had infiltrated Yemen's al-Qaida affiliate – was actually disclosed by Richard Clarke, a former official in the Clinton administration, after the initial May 7 article.
Clarke, Reuters reported, was provided the information by then-Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan, who briefed former government officials before they went on TV to discuss the plot.
Neither man has been charged with committing a crime. Brennan now serves as director of the Central Intelligence Agency and unnamed White House officials vehemently denied to Reuters he improperly disclosed classified information.
"This is a really complex investigation and we do have additional steps that we're taking," a federal law enforcement official with knowledge of the leak probe told U.S. News.
But, the official says, "after an incredibly thorough and resource-consuming investigation... we feel pretty confident that we're holding the right person responsible for the crime he committed."
The official could not say whether Brennan or Clarke face possible charges.
In May the AP disclosed that the Department of Justice secretly seized two months of phone records for 20 lines used by approximately 100 journalists, in violation of internal guidelines that recommended consultation and negotiation with media companies before seizing records.
A spokesman for U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Ronald Machen, who ordered the subpoena to acquire the AP's Verizon phone records, referred questions about the case to the Department of Justice.
Court documents released by the Department of Justice show Sachtleben communicated by text message with an AP reporter about the intercepted bomb, which was ferried to the FBI lab in Quantico, Va., for analysis. Reviewing AP phone records "allowed investigators to obtain a search warrant authorizing a more exhaustive search of Sachtleben's cell phone, computer, and other electronic media," the FBI said in a press release.
Coincidentally, the leaker's electronics were held by law enforcement since May 11, 2012, just four days after the AP story was published, as part of a child pornography investigation. Sachtleben also agreed to plead guilty to child pornography charges, with a recommended 97-month sentence, prosecutors announced Monday.
AP spokesperson Paul Colford offered a short statement on Sachtleben's case. "We never comment on our sources," he told several publications.
After the AP phone records were taken, President Barack Obama and Senate allies renewed a push for a federal media shield law. The proposal passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee Sept. 12 would codify into law Department of Justice policies concerning anti-leak probes. It would allow secretive record-seizures approved by a judge.
An offense statement dated Sept. 19 – signed by two U.S. attorneys and the leaker – said Sachtleben "did not believe that he was exposing government waste, fraud, abuse, or any other kind of government malfeasance or misfeasance."