A former Minneapolis FBI agent caught leaking classified documents to news outlet The Intercept pleaded guilty in federal court in St. Paul Tuesday, as his attorneys said he did so as an "act of conscience" against the bureau's treatment of minorities.
In a case that drew sharp criticism from press freedom organizations, Justice Department prosecutors charged Terry James Albury last month with unlawfully disclosing and retaining national defense information, and for failing to turn over a document "relating to the use of an online platform for recruitment by a specific terrorist group" last year.
Albury, 39, pleaded guilty to one count each of making an unauthorized disclosure of national defense information and unlawful retention of national defense information.
Prosecutor David Recker, a trial attorney for the National Security Division, asked Albury if his data leak could have caused "serious damage" to the country and endanger U.S. citizens.
"That is correct," said Albury, dressed in a striped gray suit.
Albury's plea agreement with the government didn't settle on a possible prison term. Prosecutors said he could face between about four to five years behind bars, while his attorneys said three to four years was more appropriate.
Recker said he will seek an increase to Albury's "offense level" score because his crimes were an "abuse of public trust." The move could increase Albury's recommended prison term, and will be challenged by defense attorneys Joshua Dratel and JaneAnne Murray at sentencing, which has not yet been scheduled.
U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina M. Wright told Albury that she had "no idea" how much time she might impose, and that his sentence could be either longer or shorter than the recommended guidelines. Each count is punishable by a maximum of 10 years in prison, up to three years of supervised release and a fine of up to $250,000.
"You cannot count on getting a guideline sentence," Wright warned Albury.
'No viable alternative'
Albury is accused of sharing a document on assessing confidential human sources — otherwise referred to as informants — and a document "relating to threats posed by certain individuals from a particular Middle Eastern country" with a reporter for a national media organization.
The charges do not name the reporter or news organization, but allege that Albury possessed and shared the information between February 2016 and Jan. 31, 2017 — the same date that the Intercept published an entry to its "FBI's Secret Rules" series on how the bureau assesses potential informants.
Albury declined to comment Tuesday after his plea hearing, but Dratel and Murray issued a written statement that echoed one they released last month stating that Albury was motivated by a desire to address the "well-documented biases within the FBI." They noted in Tuesday's statement that "the problem of racism both within the FBI and its interactions with minority communities was especially pronounced."
"Terry Albury is a good and honorable man," the statement began. "His conduct in this case was an act of conscience. It was driven by his belief that there was no viable alternative to remedy the abuses he sought to address."
The Department of Justice issued its own statement condemning Albury's crimes and promising to "work tirelessly to bring to justice those who would expose America's secrets."
"As this prosecution demonstrates, we will not waver in our commitment to pursue and hold accountable government officials who violate their obligations to protect our nation's secrets and break the laws they have sworn to uphold," Assistant Attorney General John Demers said in the statement.
Albury, who received his bachelor's degree in sociology, began working for the FBI in 2000 and most recently worked as a special agent assigned as an airport liaison, according to the affidavits sworn by an FBI counterintelligence agent in support of the federal search warrants. He served a tour for the FBI in Iraq, where he was assigned to the counterterrorism squad, according to his attorneys.
Albury's prosecution has been criticized by press freedom organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, which voiced concern over the Justice Department's "use of an antiquated World War I-era law to go after journalistic sources."
"Rather than rolling back the use of this law, which is all but guaranteed to ensnare journalists, the Trump administration has boasted about pursuing leakers even as it has ushered in a new era of overt hostility to the press," said Alexandra Ellerbeck, North America program coordinator at CPJ.
Albury remains out of custody on a $100,000 unsecured bond and several conditions, including the seizure of his passport. He resides in Northern California.
References to documents
According to previously sealed search warrant applications executed last August, the FBI linked references to secret documents in federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by the Intercept in March 2016 to Albury's activity on the FBI's information systems.
The FBI also later identified 27 government documents — 16 of which were marked classified — published online by the Intercept between April 2016 and February 2017 and found that Albury had accessed more than two-thirds of the files.
Albury conducted "cut and paste" activity on a document and accessed about a half dozen other secret documents, at least one of which was later published online. He used a digital camera to photograph documents at his office at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where he was a special agent working on counterterrorism and other matters.
Dratel and Murray said they would further address Albury's workplace grievances at sentencing, noting that Albury was "profoundly" affected by FBI directives that "profiled and intimidated minority communities in Minnesota and other locations," and which Albury was also subject to.
"The tensions and conflicts within him became unbearable, and he acted," said the attorneys' statement. "In cases that involve unauthorized disclosures of matters of public interest, there is always the claim that the person making the disclosure should have pursued remedies through official channels. Here, for reasons that will [be] amplified in our sentencing submission, Terry did not view this option as viable."
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