By David Ingram
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A former FBI agent agreed on Monday to plead guilty and likely go to prison for telling a reporter about a U.S. operation to disrupt a bomb plot, becoming the latest government employee to face criminal charges for leaking official secrets.
The investigation that led to a plea agreement for Donald John Sachtleben, 55, of Carmel, Indiana, sparked a debate over press freedom when the Associated Press reported this year that, as part of the government probe, the Justice Department seized the news agency's telephone records without its permission.
Sachtleben agreed to admit to two criminal counts related to the misuse of national defense information, according to papers filed in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis.
He agreed to a prison sentence of three years and seven months for telling the news agency of the bomb plot, in addition to eight years and one month for unrelated child pornography charges, the court papers said.
If accepted by a judge, the prison sentence would be the longest ever handed down in a civilian court for a leak of classified information to a reporter.
"I am deeply sorry for my actions. While I never intended harm to the United States or to any individuals, I do not make excuses for myself," Sachtleben, a former bomb analyst, said in a statement released by his lawyer.
In the more than four years since President Barack Obama took office, the Justice Department has waged a vigorous campaign against unauthorized leaks to the media, bringing more such cases than it had under all previous presidents combined.
Eight of 11 media-leak cases were brought since 2009.
Attorney General Eric Holder had called the leak about the bomb plot one of the most serious in U.S. history.
A story by the Associated Press in May 2012 described a U.S. operation in Yemen to foil a plot to blow up an airliner using a bomb hidden in an attacker's underwear. The news service said it delayed publishing the story at the request of government officials until security concerns were allayed, but U.S. officials said the leak compromised a U.S. agent working to undermine the Islamic militant group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Two months later, Holder appointed a senior prosecutor, Ronald Machen, to lead an inquiry.
STORM OF PROTESTS
A storm of protests by media outlets arose in May 2013 when the AP reported that the Justice Department seized records tied to more than 20 separate telephone lines. AP President Gary Pruitt said it was an attack on the news agency's sources, while Justice Department officials said the seizure was essential to the investigation and allowed by law.
Investigators connected the leak to Sachtleben only after comparing the AP phone records to a separate database of people with access to the bomb from the foiled plot, a Justice Department official said on Monday. Sachtleben had access to the FBI lab where the bomb was being analyzed, the official said.
When investigators sought access to Sachtleben's computer, they realized they already had it from the unrelated pornography inquiry, the official said.
Machen, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said in a statement: "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."
Sachtleben retired from the FBI in 2008 after about 25 years, according to the Justice Department. He continued to work on contract as a bomb analyst.
"I understand and accept that today's filings start the process of paying the full consequences of my misconduct, and I know that the justice system I once served so proudly will have its say," he said in his statement.
FBI Assistant Director Valerie Parlave said in a statement that the bureau "will continue to take all necessary steps to pursue such individuals who put the security of our nation and the lives of others at risk by their disclosure of sensitive information."
AP spokesman Paul Colford declined to comment.
"We don't ever comment on sources," he said in an email.
The investigation included interviews with hundreds of people, including White House officials who had knowledge of the U.S. operation. Some Republicans in Congress questioned whether Obama aides had fueled news leaks.
John Brennan, then Obama's adviser on counter-terrorism and now CIA director, told several TV news commentators after the AP published its report that the plot had presented little danger because Washington had "inside control" over it. The comment stoked the belief that the United States had planted a spy inside Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Howard Goller, Sandra Maler, Eric Walsh and Andre Grenon)