Thomas Andrews Drake, the former NSA employee accused of felony espionage but convicted of a misdemeanor computer violation, was sentenced Friday in Baltimore's federal court to 240 hours of community service and one year's probation.
It was an abrupt end to a lengthy case that became a rallying point for both free-speech advocates and those seeking to plug media leaks. It had also threatened to imprison Drake, who was accused of retaining classified information to give to a Baltimore Sun reporter, for up to 35 years before a surprising plea deal was struck on the eve of trial last month.
This has been "an extraordinarily difficult ordeal for me, and [it caused] tremendous pain [for] my family and friends and colleagues," Drake, 54, told the court in a quiet voice.
In delivering the sentence, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett had harsh words for the government, calling it "unconscionable" that Drake and his family were dragged through "four years of hell" only to have prosecutors ultimately back down on all felony charges.
He refused to impose a fine on Drake and warned the Justice Department that if the evidence doesn't support the charges,prosecutors need to act swiftly in making amends.
"What kind of message is sent by the government when the government dismisses a 10-count indictment?" Bennett asked. "If the executive branch of the government doesn't provide an explanation, it's up to the judicial branch to note the impropriety of it."
After the sentencing, Drake said he was tired and looking forward to rebuilding his life. "I paid a very high price as a public servant for choosing my conscience over my career and blowing the whistle on government wrongdoing," he said.
FBI agents searched his Glenwood home in November 2007, but he wasn't indicted — on 10 charges of retaining classified information, obstruction of justice and making false statements — until April 2010. Then, days before his scheduled June 13 trial, prosecutors offered him a chance to plead guilty to "exceeding the authorized use of a computer," a misdemeanor.
Drake was never charged with leaking, though it was a constant subtext to his criminal case, which came to symbolize an increasing government intolerance toward the disclosure of unauthorized information.
Five alleged leakers have been pursued under the Espionage Act by President Barack Obama's Justice Department — more than all previous administrations combined, though two cases, including Drake's, were carried over from the Bush years.
Drake's case was built on a "house of cards, and it collapsed beneath the weight of truth," Jesselyn Radack, an attorney and director at the Government Accountability Project, which advocates for whistle-blowers, said after the sentencing.
She and others fought for Drake's freedom through a media campaign that included interviews with The New Yorker and "60 Minutes" and the circulation of grass-roots petitions, along with a contingent of bloggers who repeatedly called the charges against Drake a stretch.
While prosecutors described Drake as ego-driven, he was often portrayed by sympathizers as an honest, patriotic man, and even won a $10,000 Ridenhour prize in April for truth-telling.
Court documents filed by his federal public defenders, Jim Wyda and Deborah Boardman, claim that Drake believed he was protecting his country when he told The Sun reporter — identified in court documents as Siobhan Gorman, who now works for The Wall Street Journal — about allegedly wasteful programs at the Fort Meade intelligence agency.
Gorman, who wrote a series of award-winning articles about NSA mismanagement and programmatic problems for The Sun in 2006 and 2007, declined to comment through a Journal spokeswoman.
"In the end, I was just being an American who simply stood up as a public servant in defense of truth, justice and our Constitution," Drake said after the sentencing.
The criminal case against him was his first "brush with the law," according to his attorneys, who described him in a 17-page sentencing memorandum as living an "exemplary life" dedicated to hard work in the public interest.
Friends and family "herald his honesty and patriotism, and laud his commitment to family, citizenship and the ideals of the Constitution," the lawyers wrote.
Drake grew up in Texas and Vermont, where he attended the second and third grades in a one-room schoolhouse.
He went to the Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester for high school, where his father, a World War II veteran, taught history. His mother was a secretary to author Pearl S. Buck.
A former Burr and Burton classmate described Drake in a letter to the editor, as a "quiet, kind and thoughtful guy."
In 1979, when he was 22, Drake enlisted in the Air Force — the same military branch in which his father served — and took a special interest in German, learning the language and becoming an Airborne Voice Processing Specialist, who translated and analyzed intercepted communications.