Leak of Classified Information Prompts Inquiry
WASHINGTON, July 28 — A federal grand jury has begun investigating the leak of classified information about intelligence programs to the press and has subpoenaed a former National Security Agency employee who claims to have witnessed illegal activity while working at the agency.
The former employee, Russell D. Tice, 44, of Linthicum, Md., said two F.B.I. agents approached on Wednesday and handed him the subpoena, which requires him to testify next Wednesday before a grand jury in Alexandria, Va.
The subpoena, which Mr. Tice made public on Friday, says the investigation covers “possible violation of federal criminal laws involving the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.” It specifically mentions the Espionage Act.
For months, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been looking into disclosures of secret intelligence operations, including The New York Times’s reports in December about the N.S.A.’s domestic surveillance program and The Washington Post’s articles on the Central Intelligence Agency’s overseas jails for terror suspects. But the subpoena is the first public confirmation that a grand jury has begun to hear evidence.
The decision to compel testimony before a grand jury is an indication of the seriousness of the inquiry. The Eastern District of Virginia has often been chosen by the Justice Department for national security cases because the federal court there is generally thought to be favorable to the government.
Leaks about secret counterterrorist programs, and the decision of The Times and other news media outlets to publish information on them, have been roundly denounced by President Bush and other administration officials. Some civil libertarians have defended the leaks as acts of conscience on the part of federal workers trying to stop illegal or unethical government activities.
Mr. Tice said in a telephone interview on Friday that he believed that the leak investigation and subpoena were designed to discourage whistle-blowers. “I feel this is an intimidation tactic aimed at me and anyone who’s considering dropping a dime on criminal activity by the government,” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union denounced the subpoena as part of an effort to cover up government wrongdoing.
“Courageous federal employees like Mr. Tice who bring hidden truths to light, letting lawmakers and the American people know when official misconduct has occurred, perform a valuable public service,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the A.C.L.U.’s legislative office in Washington.
A Justice Department official, who would discuss the confidential criminal investigation only on condition of anonymity, said that the leak inquiry was in a preliminary investigative phase and that no journalist had been subpoenaed. The official said federal agents had interviewed officials at several intelligence agencies about their contacts with reporters at The Times and other news organizations.
Mr. Tice was dismissed last year from his job as a space systems specialist at the N.S.A., the eavesdropping agency based at Fort Meade, Md., where he worked on top-secret satellite intelligence collection programs. In a 20-year career, he also worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency and in Air Force intelligence.
By his account, his troubles began after he raised questions inside the agency about various N.S.A. activities. Eventually, Mr. Tice said, agency officials questioned his mental health and stripped him of the security clearance he needed for intelligence work.
He said that his mental health was “perfect” and that his dismissal was retaliation for his whistle-blowing. He said he was now doing housing construction work.
Mr. Tice said that he had discussed unclassified information about the security agency with reporters for The Times and other publications but that he had always been careful not to reveal classified information.
He said he had described what he believed to be illegal security agency activities to Congressional staff members who had the necessary security clearances to receive the information. He declined to describe the activities, but he said he believed that they violated the Constitution and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which governs intelligence eavesdropping inside the United States.
Mr. Tice gave the subpoena to the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition, which posted it on its Web site at www.nswbc.org. The group was formed last year by Sibel Edmonds, a former F.B.I. translator who lost a court fight challenging her 2002 dismissal after the government invoked the state-secrets privilege, a legal doctrine it is also using to try to block lawsuits involving the security agency’s domestic surveillance program.