Ex-FBI agent to admit press leak over al-Qaeda 'underwear bomb' plot

Contractor was arrested for disclosing details of foiled al-Qaeda 'underwear bomb' in Yemen after secret seizure of reporters' phone records

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 September, 2013, 8:30pm


A former FBI agent has agreed to plead guilty to leaking secrets to reporters about a foiled bomb plot in Yemen in a case that involved the controversial seizure of reporters' phone records.

Investigators said they were able to identify Donald Sachtleben, a former bomb technician, as a suspect only after obtaining the Associated Press reporters' phone logs.

The move caused uproar among journalists and both Republican and Democrat members of the US Congress when it was disclosed in May.

The leak of information, which concerned US knowledge of so-called underwear bombs, was described by Attorney General Eric Holder as one of the most serious in US history.

Sachtleben, 55, of Carmel, Indiana, was an FBI agent from 1983 until 2008 and was later hired as a contractor.

He has agreed to serve three years and seven months in jail for the leak, the Justice Department said, in the eighth leak-related prosecution under the Obama administration. Only three such cases were prosecuted under all previous presidents.

Ronald Machen, US attorney for the District of Columbia, said: "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.

It was revealed Sachtleben had also been the subject of an investigation into child pornography. He also agreed to plead guilty in that case, accepting a sentence of eight years and one month in jail.

His total sentence, should a judge accept the plea deal, is 140 months, or nearly 12 years.

The sentence for the leakrelated offences is the longest imposed by a federal civilian court in such a case, although a military judge last month sentenced US army private Bradley Manning to 35 years for leaking archives of documents to WikiLeaks.

The Sachtleben leak case originated in a successful intelligence operation in April last year that disrupted a plot by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based offshoot of the main group, to destroy an airliner.

The government was able to obtain a special underwear bomb, apparently designed by the group's master bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri, to evade detection in airport security checks.

On May 7 last year, AP revealed the bomb plot had been disrupted, setting off further disclosures. Nearly a year later, in May this year, the Justice Department disclosed that investigators secretly used subpoenas to telephone companies to obtain calling records for 20 lines associated with AP bureaus and reporters.

The scope and secrecy of the subpoenas outraged journalism organisations and lawmakers.

The Justice Department said the phone records had proved crucial in identifying Sachtleben as a suspect.

In a bizarre coincidence, investigators then discovered that other law enforcement officials had already seized his computer and other electronic materials as part of the unrelated child pornography investigation.

One court filing quoted text messages in which the reporter reached out to Sachtleben on April 30 last year, after ABC News reported that Asiri might have been working on bombs that could be surgically implanted.

Sachtleben and the reporter exchanged several text messages, quoted in the court filing, speculating about the ABC report.

As it turns out, Sachtleben was about to take a trip to the Quantico Marine Corps base near Washington. On May 2, he visited the lab where the underwear device was being examined and soon called the reporter.

Two hours later, the court filing said, two AP reporters began calling a variety of government officials saying they knew the US government had intercepted a bomb from Yemen and that the FBI was analysing it.

Paul Colford, a spokesman for AP, would not discuss the case, saying: "We would never comment on our sources."