FBI Agent’s Decision to Plead Guilty to AP Leak Doesn’t Necessarily Vindicate Seizure of Phone Records
Donald Sachtleben pled guilty to leaking information on a “disrupted suicide bomb attack on a US-bound airliner by the Yemen-based terrorist organization Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (“AQAP”) and the recovery by the United States of a bomb in connection with that plot in April 2012.” Sachtleben was also subject to a parallel investigation for child pornography and pled guilty to charges stemming from that investigation.
Sachtleben previously worked as a Special Agent Bomb Technician and had apparently worked major cases involving terrorist attacks. While an FBI employee, he had a Top Secret security clearance, which granted him regular access to classified information on the FBI’s activities and other activities of the intelligence community.
He could serve forty-three months in prison for the leak if a federal judge accepts the plea. According to the New York Times, that term would be the longest ever served in a federal civilian court case.
The guilty plea is notable because it stems from the leak investigation that touched off allegations of scandal when it became public that the Justice Department had seized phone records from “more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012.” There is no way of knowing the “exact number of journalists,” who used the phone lines during this period, however, “100 journalists work in the offices whose phone records were targeted on a wide array of stories about government and other matters.” Home phone and cell phone records of individual journalists were collected as well.
Officials chose not to notify AP before collecting information and claim they did not have to provide notice, citing an exemption in federal regulations. AP only found out that records had been secretly obtained through a letter from US attorney, Ronald Machen, which the AP’s general counsel, Laura Malone, received on the afternoon of May 10.
AP executive editor, Kathleen Carroll, said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” it was “distressing that the Justice Department felt the need to seize our records and not tell us about it.” It is “distressing to think that, without our knowledge, someone is looking at phone calls that we make in the course of daily business.”