A small victory

One of the things most people who haven’t experienced our glorious legal system don’t realize is that “winning” is a deeply misleading word. The costs (especially when the government is involved) are enormous no matter which way the case goes.

With that said, this from the Times is good news:

BALTIMORE — A former spy agency official accused of leaking classified information to a newspaper walked out of court a free man on Friday, sentenced to a year’s probation and community service, after hearing the judge excoriate the government for its handling of the case.

Judge Richard D. Bennett of the Federal District Court praised the former National Security Agency official, Thomas A. Drake, for his exemplary record of public service before giving him a mild scolding for improperly providing information on alleged agency mismanagement to The Baltimore Sun.

But Judge Bennett reserved his strongest condemnation for the Justice Department, saying the two and a half years that elapsed between the search of Mr. Drake’s home and his indictment in 2010 was far too long.

The visibly angry judge said that Mr. Drake had been through “four years of hell” and that the dragging out of the investigation — and then the dropping of the major charges on the eve of trial — was “unconscionable.”

“It doesn’t pass the smell test,” he said.

The context is also remarkable (emphasis added):

Judge Bennett did not directly attack the Obama administration’s unprecedented campaign of criminal charges against leakers, and he said it was “very, very important” to protect government secrets. But his remarks, following the collapse of the major charges against Mr. Drake, were another embarrassing setback for the government.

The Drake prosecution is one of five against government employees accused of disclosing classified information to the news media under President Obama, compared with three such cases under all previous presidents.

As for the leaked documents, they revealed the government’s decision to drop an internally developed surveillance system in favor of a massively expensive alternative that involved delays, was far more intrusive and clearly violated FISA (this was before Obama’s vote in favor of gutting FISA protections for citizens). For this, his life was ruined, though he “won” in the end.

Mr. Drake, a father of five who had won accolades in a career that included 15 years of service in the Air Force and the Navy Reserve, spent $82,000 on legal fees and took a second mortgage on his house before qualifying as an indigent for free representation by federal public defenders.

His marriage came under strain, and he moved out of his home for a year. F.B.I. agents who searched his house in 2007 have still not returned the family’s computers.

Apart from the drastic reduction of the charges he faced, Mr. Drake has seen some vindication for his views. The Trailblazer program was shut down as a failure after the N.S.A. paid contractors more than $1 billion. And an investigation by the Defense Department inspector general — based in part on information Mr. Drake provided — concluded that the agency “may be developing a less-capable long-term digital network exploitation solution” to tap into foreign telephone and Internet traffic.

For more, see Jane Mayer’s New Yorker piece.

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