A former U.S. State Department contractor accused of leaking classified intelligence about North Korea to a reporter pleaded guilty today to unauthorized disclosure of national defense information.
The plea agreement calls for Stephen Kim, 46, to serve 13 months in prison. Kim was charged with giving classified information to Fox News reporter James Rosen in 2009 and making a false statement to the FBI. The Justice Department’s handling of the leak investigation and another involving the Associated Press sparked criticism from House Republican lawmakers and free-press advocates about what they called heavy-handed tactics in dealing with news media.
The controversy led U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last year to tighten guidelines for federal prosecutors handling cases that involve members of the press.
Justice Department officials said today’s plea deal demonstrates they will pursue leakers who harm U.S. interests.
“Stephen Kim admits that he wasn’t a whistleblower,” Ronald C. Machen, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said in a statement.
Kim’s defense attorney, Abbe Lowell, issued a statement saying his client pleaded guilty to avoid a costly trial and potentially harsh prison term. The former contractor had faced as long as 10 years in prison if convicted of leaking the top secret material. He faced an additional five years if he had been convicted of making a false statement to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a charge that was dropped as part of the agreement.
Lowell said Kim “did what so many government officials do every day in Washington, D.C.: he talked to a reporter. Regrettably, the topic of some of the information he discussed with a reporter was also contained in a classified report.”
The classified information was “less sensitive or surprising than what we read in the newspaper every day,” the lawyer added.
Sentencing is scheduled before U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly on April 2.
Kim was an employee of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California who worked as a senior intelligence adviser for the State Department. In the agreement, the former contractor admitted that he met Rosen, who is identified in court papers as “Reporter A,” in the Spring of 2009. The Justice Department identified Rosen as that reporter.
On June 11, 2009, Kim and Rosen exchanged phone calls and met outside of the State Department where the contractor passed the journalist information from a secret intelligence report detailing “military capabilities and preparedness of North Korea,” the plea papers say.
Within hours of the meeting, Rosen published a story on Fox News’s website that said North Korea intended to conduct a nuclear test in response to a UN Security Council resolution condemning the secretive nation’s previous nuclear tests.
In 2010, as it was investigating the leak, the FBI obtained a search warrant to access an e-mail account used by Rosen. The government alleged the reporter was “an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator” in obtaining the top secret information.
The disclosure of the warrant last year raised questions from lawmakers about whether President Barack Obama’s administration was targeting Rosen for prosecution for news gathering.
Under the new Justice Department guidelines, such a search warrant can no longer be issued if the journalist is engaged in ordinary reporting activities.
In a statement issued today, the Justice Department said its “investigation and prosecution of this matter is concluded.”
Rosen and a spokeswoman for Fox News didn’t immediately return a call or e-mail seeking comment on the plea deal.
The case is U.S. v. Kim, 10-00225, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).
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