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Stephen Kim Pleads Guilty to Leak Charge

Former State Department contractor Stephen Kim pleaded guilty on Friday to one count of unauthorized disclosure of national defense information to a Fox News reporter. Following a sentencing hearing in April, he is expected to serve a 13 month term in prison. (WashPost, NYT, Politico).

The plea was an abrupt departure from previous defense strategy. As recently as last month, Mr. Kim’s attorneys had argued that it was “the defense’s theory that the alleged disclosure to Fox News emanated from senior officials at the National Security Council or the White House, and not from a lower level employee like Mr. Kim” (Defendant’s Seventh Motion to Compel, January 17, 2014, page 5).

But in a February 3 Statement of Offense signed by the defendant, Mr. Kim acknowledged that he had “orally disclosed to Reporter A [James Rosen of Fox News] TS//SCI national defense information… specifically about the military capabilities and preparedness of North Korea.”

The two positions are not necessarily contradictory. “Stephen did not reveal any intelligence ‘sources’ or ‘methods’,” said his defense attorney Abbe Lowell in a February 7 statement. “He did not provide any documents or electronic data to anyone. He did not pay for or receive payment for his actions.”

Moreover, Mr. Lowell said, “news reports from the same day demonstrate that Stephen was not the only government employee discussing the topic at issue. Stephen may have told the reporter what the reporter already knew from others, but Stephen was the only one charged.”

The case against Mr. Kim stemmed from a June 11, 2009 Fox News story (“North Korea Intends to Match U.N. Resolution With New Nuclear Test” by James Rosen).

That story stated that “Pyongyang’s next nuclear detonation is but one of four planned actions the Central Intelligence Agency has learned, through sources inside North Korea, that the regime of Kim Jong-Il intends to take….” The brief but startling reference to “sources inside North Korea” appeared to refer to CIA human intelligence sources within the DPRK, potentially placing any such sources at heightened risk.

If that short phrase had not been published, it is doubtful that the Fox News story would have triggered a full-fledged leak investigation, or that Mr. Kim would have been prosecuted as a result.

In other words, because Fox News reported and edited the story in such a questionable way, it deserves a share of the responsibility both for any compromise of U.S. intelligence capabilities that may have occurred, and for Mr. Kim’s unhappy fate. (As noted above, Mr. Kim’s defense denies that he revealed any intelligence sources and methods.)

Unfortunately, this kind of carelessness on the part of media organizations is not all that unusual, even among publications that are not avowedly antagonistic or “adversarial” towards U.S. intelligence.

“News organizations publishing leaked National Security Agency documents have inadvertently disclosed the names of at least six intelligence workers and other government secrets they never intended to give away,” according to the Associated Press (“Media sometimes try, fail to keep NSA’s secrets” by Raphael Satter, AP, February 8).

The 13 month prison sentence that Stephen Kim is expected to receive may be the least of the punishments he will have suffered. Merely to be accused and prosecuted under the Espionage Act can be practically unbearable.

Even before a final judgment has been rendered, his sister wrote, “He endured what would break a normal person, abandoned by his significant other, deserted by his ‘friends’, shunned by his former colleagues, [and] ostracized by society.”

But setting aside questions of fairness, proportionality and selective prosecution, there is a certain dignity in submitting to the judicial process and accepting the consequences of one’s actions.

“Stephen decided to take responsibility for his actions and move forward with his life,” wrote Abbe Lowell.

As we know, not everyone is prepared to do that. But it is not a new predicament.

In ancient Athens, friends of Socrates urged him to flee the country to escape an unjust punishment.

“For men will love you in other places to which you may go, and not in Athens only,” said Crito in Plato’s dialogue of that name. “There are friends of mine in Thessaly, if you like to go to them, who will value and protect you, and no Thessalian will give you any trouble.”

“Nor can I think that you are justified, Socrates, in betraying your own life when you might be saved; this is playing into the hands of your enemies and destroyers,” Crito added.

Upon consideration, however, Socrates refused to become a fugitive under those circumstances. He said he had “chosen the better and nobler part, instead of playing truant and running away, of enduring any punishment which the state inflicts” (Phaedo).

“The Athenians have thought fit to condemn me, and accordingly I have thought it better and more right to remain here and undergo my sentence,” Socrates said.

FISA Court Appointments, Potential Reforms, and More from CRS

It was announced today that Chief Justice Roberts has appointed Judge James E. Boasberg of the DC District Court to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for a seven year term beginning in May 2014. He will replace the outgoing Presiding Judge Reggie Walton, whose term expires in May. The Chief Justice also appointed Judge Richard C. Tallman of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review.

The current membership of the FISA Courts can be found here.

Background information on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and potential changes to its operations were discussed in a new report from the Congressional Research Service. See Reform of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts: Procedural and Operational Changes, January 16, 2014.

Relatedly from CRS, see Introducing a Public Advocate into the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s Courts: Select Legal Issues, October 25, 2013

Other new and updated CRS reports that Congress has withheld from online public distribution include the following.

The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics: Security and Human Rights Issues, January 26, 2014

The National Defense Authorization Act for FY2012 and Beyond: Detainee Matters, January 27, 2014

Cuba: U.S. Policy and Issues for the 113th Congress, January 29, 2014

Cuba: U.S. Restrictions on Travel and Remittances, February 4, 2014

Mexico: Background and U.S. Relations, January 30, 2014

Status of Mexican Trucks in the United States: Frequently Asked Questions, January 3, 2014

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA): Background, Legislation, and Policy Issues, January 23, 2014

Judge Wants to Examine Censored Book

For more than three years, author Anthony Shaffer has been challenging the government’s contention that hundreds of passages in his Afghanistan memoir “Operation Dark Heart” are classified and should not be publicly disclosed. Now a judge has ordered the full text of the book to be delivered to her in “complete and unredacted” form.

DC District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer told the Defense Intelligence Agency and its co-defendants DOD and CIA to file under seal “a complete and unredacted copy of the published book, Operation Dark Heart: Spycraft and Special Ops on the Frontline of Afghanistan and the Path to Victory” no later than January 24.

“The 233 passages that remain classified should be unredacted and highlighted in yellow,” she wrote in a January 17 order. “The passages that were initially redacted but subsequently declassified should be highlighted in blue. If the unredacted copy of the book contains both secret and top secret information, Defendant must file a secret and top secret version of the book. That is, one copy should contain all classified information unredacted and highlighted in yellow. The other copy should contain only the secret information unredacted and highlighted and the top secret information redacted.”

The clear implication is that Judge Collyer intends to perform her own assessment of the validity of the government’s classification claims rather than simply rely on the affidavits of government officials attesting to their validity.

Though sensible and straightforward, this is also an unusual step. Most often, courts defer to the presumed expertise of executive branch classification officials, and decline to “second guess” them. This case is now shaping up to be an exception to that rule.

The dispute over “Operation Dark Heart” is complicated by the fact that review copies of the original, uncensored text have circulated in the public domain and portions of the text have been posted online.