Navy dropping charges against ex-cryptologist

Spy trial would reveal vital secrets, officials say

March 10, 2001|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

The Navy has agreed to dismiss all charges against a former NSA cryptologist suspected of mailing a computer disk containing U.S. secrets to the Russians.

The former cryptologist, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel King, was expected to be released late last night or early this morning. He has spent more than 500 days in the brig at Quantico, Va.

Navy spokeswoman Cmdr. Roxie Merritt said the decision to release King was based on concerns that the pretrial hearing and subsequent trial would reveal too many national security secrets.

The decision came hours after an unusual move by a judicial officer who urged the Navy to drop the charges, saying that naval officials hadn't adequately prosecuted the case.

Cmdr. James P. Winthrop, an officer presiding over the hearing, wrote to the commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet that he saw no value in pursuing the case further. Among his concerns, he said, were doubts he had over the validity of a confession King supposedly made after his arrest.

"I recognize this is an extraordinary step in light of the fact that the investigation has not been complete," wrote Winthrop. "It is not my intention or desire for this recommendation to direct blame at any specific government personnel, as there is plenty to go around."

The case against King, who formerly worked at the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, has suffered from a number of prosecutorial missteps. Winthrop said yesterday that he is calling for a review of the Navy's handling of the case.

King, who was arrested in October 1999, is alleged to have failed a routine lie detector test and confessed to sending a computer disk to the Russian Embassy in Washington. What secrets might have been on such a disk, for which King apparently never received money, remain unclear.

"It has become apparent to me ... that the government has not been able to effectively prosecute this case," Winthrop wrote. "I strongly recommend that government participants review this case and determine the lessons learned from the case so the mistakes committed will not be repeated."

The Navy had been in the process this week of replacing Cmdr. Lynn Jowers, the lead prosecutor at the Article 32 hearing, which is the equivalent of a grand jury proceeding. Typically an Article 32 hearing lasts three to four days and results in a case being sent to trial; King's hearing is in its fifth month.

Winthrop's letter noted that an entire examination of a single witness has yet to be completed. He also highlighted problems with the testimony of five of the six government witnesses who have testified.

Naval personnel spent yesterday afternoon in high-level meetings to determine the next step. Merritt denied that the letter affected the decision.

Winthrop also wrote that the Navy's case against King on additional charges was minimized by "strong extenuating circumstances" and said the evidence supporting the alleged computer disk incident "does not appear to be significantly stronger."

"Additionally, the defense clearly intends to attack the voluntariness of that confession, and it appears that such a claim is colorable," he wrote.

King's attorney, George Washington University Law School professor and former NSA employee Jonathan Turley, said he plans to file a lawsuit against the Navy on King's behalf and bring ethics charges against several Navy personnel.

"All of that happened," he said, "because they were never willing to admit they never did have a spy."

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