FBI contractor to plead guilty in leak of al Qaeda terror plot

The Justice Department has charged an FBI contractor with leaking classified information about an al Qaeda-linked terrorist plot last year to The Associated Press.

The leaked information detailed a thwarted plot from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to use an upgraded version of an underwear bomb to attack a U.S.-bound plane.           

Donald Sachtleben, a former FBI bomb technician who became an FBI contractor in 2008, will plead guilty to the charges on Monday of unlawfully disclosing national defense information related to the plot, the Justice Department said.

As part of the plea agreement, Sachtleben also pleaded guilty to unrelated child pornography charges that were filed last year. The agreement calls for him to be sentenced for more than 11 years: roughly three-and-a-half years for the leak charges and eight years for the pornography charges.

ADVERTISEMENT
The charges are the first since Attorney General Eric Holder appointed two prosecutors last year to investigate media leaks into the al Qaeda terror plot and the revelation that the United States was behind the Stuxnet cyberattack.

The Sachtleben case is the latest instance of the Obama administration aggressively targeting leakers. The administration has pursued more leak cases than all previous administrations combined.

“Fifteen months ago, we were given the task of uncovering who had threatened a sensitive intelligence operation and endangered lives by illegally disclosing classified information relating to a disrupted al Qaeda suicide bomb plot,” Ronald Machen, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, said in a statement.

“That plot could not have been more serious, as it targeted a plane bound for the United States. After unprecedented investigative efforts by prosecutors and FBI agents and analysts, today Donald Sachtleben has been charged with this egregious betrayal of our national security.”

Lawmakers last year were outraged over the leaks of the terror plot and cyberattack last year, and demanded investigations. Republicans pushed the Obama administration to appoint an independent special counsel.

But there was also congressional outrage this year over one of the tools used to track down Sachtleben, as the Justice Department said that the tapping of the AP reporters’ phone records identified him as a subject.

“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 in a statement.

Lawmakers were angry with Holder after it was revealed that the Justice Department collected the AP phone records through a subpoena without telling the news organization.

The charges, filed in the U.S. District Court in Indiana, show text messages that were alleged to have been sent between Sachtleben and “Reporter A” on April 30 and May 1.

The AP then published its story about the terror plot on May 7: “US: CIA thwarts new al Qaeda underwear bomb plot.”

That story, however, did not include the detail that raised the most ire about the leaks: that the plot was uncovered because of a double agent who had infiltrated AQAP.

Nine days after he leaked information to the AP, Sachtleben was charged in the child pornography case, the Justice Department said.

The Associated Press declined to comment on the charges.

"We never comment on our sources," AP spokesman Paul Colford said.

The Justice Department said that Sachtleben worked at the FBI from 1983 through 2008 and had a top-secret clearance. He maintained the clearance when he became an FBI contractor after retiring.