Espionage charges against a former National Security Agency employee have been watered down to the relatively minor offence of unauthorised access of a government computer.
Thomas Drake, the 55 year old former NSA senior executive, pleaded guilty last week to the “misdemeanor offence of intentionally exceeding the authorised access of a computer,” the US Department of Justice said in a statement.
Drake had used his 'Top Secret' clearance to NSA’s intranet, NSANet, to give classified information to a person that was not cleared between 2006 and 2007.
Drake had previously faced 10 charges under the Espionage Act and a potential 30 years' imprisonment, however he now faces a maximum one year sentence in a federal prison.
His case was meant to serve as a warning to others of the risks of leaking classified information.
The former NSA staffer’s defence attorney labelled the government’s efforts to charge him under the Espionage Act -- which US authorities may seek to charge WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with -- as “overreach”.
"This was the wrong person, this was the wrong case, and the Espionage Act was an overreach," Jesselyn Radack told the LA Times.
"I hope this is the death knell of using the Espionage Act to send a message to 'leakers' who are more often than not whistle-blowers," she added.
The recipient of the information was Baltimore-Sun reporter Siobhan Gorman, who had used the information to write about waste and mismanagement at the NSA.
Prosecuting Drake under the original charges would have made highly classified information publicly available, which the NSA concluded would harm national security, according to the Justice Department.
“As today’s guilty plea shows, in cases involving classified information, we must always strike the careful balance between holding accountable those who break our laws, while not disclosing highly-sensitive information that our intelligence agencies conclude would be harmful to our nation’s security if used at trial,” said Assistant Attorney General Breuer.