The Trump administration’s drive to crack down on government leaks scored its first guilty pleas on Tuesday as a former FBI special agent admitted to leaking classified information to the media and to keeping classified information at his home without permission.
Former FBI Agent Terry Albury, 39, appeared in federal court in St. Paul, Minnesota, to offer guilty pleas to two felony violations of the Espionage Act, a century-old law that covers both espionage and other offenses relating to mishandling of classified information.
Charges filed last month as part of a plea bargain between federal prosecutors and Albury don’t name the news organization involved, but an affidavit used last year to obtain search warrants related to the case indicate that the online news outlet The Intercept was the recipient of Albury’s leaks.
The affidavit said closed-circuit videos taken in an office that Albury used at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport showed him using a digital camera to take pictures of the screen on his FBI computer. In other instances, Albury used a cut-and-paste function to move sections of classified documents into another document so that he wouldn’t appear to have printed the originals, authorities said.
Some of the same documents Albury accessed were published by The Intercept in “The FBI’s Secret Rules,” a series detailing the law enforcement agency’s use of informants.
After U.S. District Court Judge Wilhelmina Wright accepted Albury’s pleas at a hearing on Tuesday, the Justice Department issued statements touting the development as a warning to other potential leakers.
“Terry Albury betrayed the trust bestowed upon him by the United States,” said the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Tracy Doherty-McCormick. “Today’s guilty plea should serve as a reminder to those who are entrusted with classified information that the Justice Department will hold them accountable.”
Stephen Laycock, the special agent in charge of counterintelligence for the FBI’s Washington field office, said: “In violating his oath of office, Terry Albury not only betrayed the American people but also his fellow FBI employees who work to safeguard sensitive information on a daily basis. No one is above the law, and the FBI will continue to investigate individuals who disclose classified material to those who are not authorized to receive it.”
The Intercept hasn’t confirmed that Albury was one of its sources, but the outlet’s editor-in-chief, Betsy Reed, condemned the prosecution as heavy-handed.
“We do not discuss anonymous sources,” Reed said in a statement last month. “The use of the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers seeking to shed light on matters of vital public concern is an outrage, and all journalists have the right under the First Amendment to report these stories.”
Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minnesota are not handling the case, apparently recused because of frequent interaction with Albury while he was working for the FBI in the Minneapolis area, including as a liaison to U.S. Customs officials at the busy Minneapolis airport.
In theory, Albury could receive up to 20 years in prison for the two felony counts. However, he’s likely to receive a substantially shorter sentence under federal sentencing guidelines that include provisions shortening the recommended sentence when defendants plead guilty.
Since soon after taking office, President Donald Trump has been urging the Justice Department and intelligence agencies to hunt down leakers, particularly those releasing sensitive information about interactions between his advisers and Russia.
Last August, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a broad crackdown on leaks and said the FBI was reorganizing to form a unit dedicated solely to leaks of of classified information. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein also said the Justice Department was revisiting its policies limiting investigators’ access to records about journalists’ communications with their sources. No result of that review has been announced.
The only other leak case brought during the Trump administration also involves an alleged disclosure to The Intercept. Last June, the FBI arrested a Georgia-based National Security Agency contractor and linguist, Reality Winner, on suspicion of disclosing a top-secret report issued the previous month about Russian intrusions into state voter databases.
Winner, 26, is fighting the single felony count, under the Espionage Act, that she faces in that case. No trial date has been set.