Kim was sentenced to 13 months in prison on April 2, 2014, after he accepted a plea deal. He reported to the Cumberland minimum-security camp a few months later.
The government accused him of leaking classified information to Fox News reporter James Rosen from an intelligence report on North Korea. Kim was upset with US policy toward North Korea, believing it was too weak. The report contained analysis suggesting North Korea would retaliate if United Nations sanctions were imposed.
A major story by journalist Peter Maass for The Intercept features the first public statements from Kim on what he experienced. His statements remind one of the ruthless Espionage Act prosecutions against former NSA senior officer Thomas Drake and former CIA officer John Kiriakou.
“My reputation is gone,” Kim declares while having dinner with Maass. “I don’t have any power. I am not a human being. I am the property of the state.” He lifted up a plate and added, “I am like this. I don’t have rights. There’s no Stephen Kim. It’s erased. I am prisoner number whatever.”
Kim worked in the State Department’s Bureau of Verification. He was responsible for tracking programs involving the development of weapons of mass destruction, which may threaten the United States. He was regarded as an “invaluable asset” and, at one point, was set to be promoted to the Policy Planning Staff, where he would be directly advising the secretary of state.
He became a target of President Barack Obama’s crackdown on leaks after he exchanged emails and had phone calls with Rosen. The FBI was able to use the metadata to prove the two had communications. They did not need to demonstrate that classified intelligence had been shared in those conversations in order to prosecute him for leaking.
As Maass highlighted, Rosen made a phone call to Kim from the press room inside the State Department on June 11, 2009. It lasted only about a half of a minute. Kim called back and spoke to Rosen for “nearly a dozen minutes.” The two then left together and talked to each other again when they returned. This was just as the classified intelligence report containing sensitive details on North Korea initially circulated. Rosen published his story the same day.
By September 24 that year, the FBI was already investigating him. Two agents escorted him to his office and, according to Kim, were “friendly.” Kim was asked to “sign a document stating that he was aware they were conducting an investigation.” But the FBI did not say he was the target.
“It wasn’t like suddenly they came in and, boom, laid it on me,” Kim explains.“They did not say, ‘We are investigating a leak.’ They did not say, ‘We are investigating you.’ … I didn’t know why they were there.”
The agents wanted information about Kim’s background, his family, people he worked with, and they were also interested in the story Rosen published on North Korea. They wanted to know if he was a source for Rosen’s story. Kim apparently stated, according to one FBI agent, ““I wouldn’t pick up a phone and call Rosen or Fox News.”
Kim fell victim to the FBI’s tactic of “non-custodial questioning.” This is, as Maass described, where law enforcements may visit a suspect at their home or workplace and pretend to be friendly as they basically conduct an interrogation. “Suspects are not read their Miranda rights, warning that anything they say can be used against them in a court of law.”
Life deteriorated after the agents questioned him. He was fired from his position at the State Department. He struggled to find work elsewhere in government until he was given a job at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a largely unknown Pentagon think tank. He went on vacation with his wife to South Korea, but, when he returned, he was for the first time in his life stopped and questioned at customs.
Then, in March 2010, he had a meeting with FBI agents who informed him he was being charged with offenses related to his role in leaking classified information. The agents also requested his permission to search his condo in McLean, Virginia, or they would go get a search warrant. Kim was “dumbfounded.”
Kim vividly recalls what it felt like to be accused of this crime:
…Have you ever been hit really hard, like playing sports, or you ran into a pole, or somebody hit you? At first you don’t know what hit you. You’re kind of stunned. It doesn’t even hurt in the beginning … When somebody gets shot, unless you have had the experience of being shot, you don’t know that you’ve been shot. It’s not like in the movies. That’s the closest analogy I can come up with. I didn’t know what was happening…
According to Kim, he came home after the interrogation and encountered an FBI agent who had already staked out his condo. Agents soon arrived and confiscated computers, went through his cupboards and opened books to see if anything was hidden. Agents, who believed they would find a document, badgered him. Days later, the Justice Department charged him with violating the Espionage Act.
Kim became suicidal. “Every single day, I thought about killing myself,” Kim tells Maass. He considered ending his life by overdosing on Tylenol or by jumping in front of a train.
“It’s a ruthless calculus — you don’t think like a normal person. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it, either. Why should I be? Have you gone through what I have? If not, then don’t judge, don’t cast a stone,” Kim shares.
Worse, as is typical in these cases, Kim would plunge himself into financial ruin by spending the millions of dollars required to hire legal representation that could take on the government and save him from a lengthy prison sentence. His sister, Yuri, sacrificed a lot of her wealth to help him battle the government. They hired Abbe Lowell, who had defended lobbyist Lawrence Franklin when he was prosecuted for violating the Espionage Act.
After he accepted the plea deal, Kim also struggled to explain to his father that he was not a spy for North Korea. His dad believed by not taking the case to trial he was admitting his guilt. It almost permanently destroyed any relationship he had with his father.
Maass does not hesitate to point out that mid-level government employees, like Kim, typically contact reporters to “convey their worries that high-level officials are misguided.” However, Kim had no experience in talking to reporters. He wrote to Rosen, “I am new to this. Do you have any good suggestions on things you might be interested in doing?” It was a mistake because Rosen explicitly and carelessly expressed his desire for sensitive information, making it easier for the FBI to pursue him.
Remarkably, the story Rosen published, in retrospect, was seen as a “nothing burger” by one unnamed State Department official. “Nothing extraordinary” was in the story. But senior officials in the White House discussed the leak’s significance because it had details from a classified intelligence report and were concerned because the details had been made public just hours after the report was first circulated.
Lowell managed to uncover evidence that Rosen had contacted a National Security Council phone number used by then-Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Denis McDonough and other officials, including then-counterterrorism adviser John Brennan. It helped Kim show that others were probably having conversations about the report on North Korea yet it would not save him from prison.
It did not matter if the leak had not posed any actual risk or harm to national security. The government was confident they could nail Kim for the leak of national defense information and wanted to make an example out of someone at a time when curtailing leaks was an utmost priority. They succeeded in crushing him.
“The only thing I had to think about was how to survive day to day. What do I have to do every single day to be sane.”