Confronted with what he saw as the FBI's mistreatment of minorities, former Minneapolis special agent Terry Albury said he felt the need to act.
What he did has led to a four-year prison sentence.
Albury, 39, who joined the bureau in 2000 and was most recently assigned as an airport liaison, was sentenced Thursday in the federal courthouse in downtown St. Paul. He had previously pleaded guilty to making an unauthorized disclosure of national defense information and unlawful retention of national defense information. His date to report to prison has not been scheduled.
Prosecutors say Albury shared documents — some considered classified — on evaluating potential informants, along with a document "relating to threats posed by certain individuals from a particular Middle Eastern country."
He is the second person sentenced as part of the Trump administration's crackdown on government employee leaks to the media. The other, Reality Winner, a former National Security Agency contractor, received a five-year prison term for disclosing a top-secret report on how Russian operatives gained access to U.S. election databases.
In delivering Albury's sentence on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright said that while his motivations may have been pure, he didn't have the right to break the law.
"You put the United States at risk," she said. "In your mind, a noble cause and a just action; in the minds of those who understand national security, a fool's errand."
Albury admitted last spring to leaking the documents to an unnamed reporter. While never identified in court filings, it's widely believed that the information ended up in the hands of the Intercept, a national news outlet, which used them in its "FBI's Secret Rules" series on how the bureau assesses potential informants.
Jill Sanborn, special agent in charge of the bureau's local office, dismissed Albury's actions as "an act of selfishness."
"He betrayed his colleagues and the trust the public puts in the men and women of the FBI to keep them and our communities safe," she said in a statement.
The White House and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have made prosecuting government employees who leak sensitive information to the media a high priority, with Sessions saying last year that the Justice Department had more than tripled the number of active leak investigations since President Barack Obama left office.
The case has worried press freedom advocates, who see it as fulfillment of Sessions' pledge to crack down on government leakers.
According to Heidi Kitrosser, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, the case is the latest attempt by the government to stretch the Espionage Act, a World War I-era law enacted to go after spies, to punish those who leak information to the media. Kitrosser was among 17 legal scholars who co-authored a brief in support of Albury.
"As more and more prosecutions go forward, I think we're going to see more people who would've spoken to the press in the past about matters of public importance holding back now because they're afraid."
Frustration led to action
Albury's defense team argued that as the only black agent in the Twin Cities office, he had grown disillusioned with a workplace culture that he believed was sometimes hostile toward minorities. He also grew outspoken about what he considered "discriminatory practices and policies" in the FBI's "counterterrorism strategies." His tenure with the office overlapped with a series of investigations involving young men of East African descent accused of plotting to join overseas extremist groups.
On numerous occasions, court records say, Albury cut and pasted secret documents and took other steps to avoid detection. At times, he came into his office at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport early to photograph documents with a digital camera before his colleagues arrived.
Among the leaked documents was a secret FBI handbook on cultivating informants by creating assessments to identify their "motivations and vulnerabilities," which could then be used to gain their cooperation. Prosecutors said in court filings that a search of Albury's home uncovered "more than 50 additional documents, 35 of which were marked classified at the Secret level," which they said he would have likely also leaked.
"This case is not about race. Nor is it about blowing any whistles," they wrote in a court filing. "It is most certainly not about moral injuries. What it is about is the unlawful transmission and retention of classified national defense information by someone who fully understood how wrong his conduct was."
Albury's attorneys had argued for a lesser sentence, saying that he joined the FBI straight out of college more than 16 years ago and had known no other profession. To be stripped of that, they argued, was punishment enough. The judge disagreed.
Albury tearfully addressed the court before the sentence was read, apologizing to his family for putting them through this "devastating" ordeal, and to his former colleagues. Pausing several times to compose himself, the ex-agent said that after his arrest he underwent counseling and realized he should have chosen a different path for change.
"I just wanted to make a difference and never intended to put anyone in danger," he said.
Staff writer Stephen Montemayor and the Associated Press contributed to this report.