WASHINGTON — A former FBI agent has agreed to plead guilty to leaking classified information to The Associated Press about a foiled bomb plot in Yemen last year, the Justice Department announced Monday. Federal investigators said they identified him after obtaining phone logs of Associated Press reporters.
The retired agent, a former bomb technician named Donald Sachtleben, has agreed to serve 43 months in prison, the Justice Department said. The case brings to eight the number of leak-related prosecutions brought under President Barack Obama’s administration; under all previous presidents, there were three such cases.
“This prosecution demonstrates our deep resolve to hold accountable anyone who would violate their solemn duty to protect our nation’s secrets and to prevent future, potentially devastating leaks by those who would wantonly ignore their obligations to safeguard classified information,” said Ronald C. Machen Jr., the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who was assigned to lead the investigation by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
In a twist, Sachtleben, 55, of Carmel, Ind., was the subject of a separate FBI investigation for distributing child pornography, and has separately agreed to plead guilty in that matter and serve 97 months. His total sentence for both sets of offenses, should the plea deal be accepted by a judge, is 140 months.
A Justice Department court filing claims that Sachtleben disclosed the fact that the Central Intelligence Agency had foiled a bomb plot in Yemen to an unnamed reporter — The Associated Press was not identified in the filing — on May 2, 2012. The news service broke the news that a plot had been foiled in Yemen on May 7.
A year later, it became known that the Justice Department had secretly subpoenaed phone companies for calling records for 20 phone lines of Associated Press offices and reporters, without providing advance notice to the organization so they could negotiate over the scope of the effort or ask a judge to quash the subpoena.
The disclosure helped set off a furor among journalists and members of Congress over the Justice Department’s aggressive methods in carrying out leak investigations, and Holder, who was recused from that investigation, later issued new guidelines tightening the circumstances by which investigators could go after reporters’ information.
The calling records proved crucial to identifying Sachtleben, the Justice Department said. An official familiar with the investigation said the FBI had conducted more than 550 interviews at that point but had not managed to identify a suspect. The records showed communications between the reporter and Sachtleben, who became a suspect.
“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.