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A big development today in the Justice Department's crackdown on national security leaks. A former CIA agent pleaded guilty to revealing the name of a covert operative to a reporter. John Kiriakou agreed to spend two and a half years in prison.
NPR's Carrie Johnson was in the courtroom in Virginia for the plea hearing and joins us now to talk about the case. Welcome, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Thanks.
CORNISH: So remind us exactly who is John Kiriakou. What is he known for? What did he do?
JOHNSON: Audie, he's a longtime CIA counterterrorism operative. He worked for the agency between 1990 and 2004 on some very important missions, including some activities in Pakistan. Kiriakou went public back in 2007 with a very high-profile interview with ABC News, in which he talked about waterboarding or simulated drowning of terrorism suspects. He got a lot of attention for that.
But he only came under fire from the Justice Department earlier this year for alleged widespread leaks on the Justice Department, as he leaked the names of his colleagues and their involvement in very sensitive national security operations, such as renditions of terrorism suspects.
CORNISH: So he pleaded guilty to one criminal charge and that was disclosing the name of an undercover operative. What happened to the rest of the case?
JOHNSON: Well, the Justice Department, as part of the plea deal, agreed to drop four other very serious criminal charges, including several charges accusing Kiriakou of violating the Espionage Act; that 1917 World War I era law, which carries very, very steep prison time. Essentially, they brokered a plea deal that caps his prison time in two and a half years. That's the same amount of time, the judge noted today, that Scooter Libby got for leaking the identity of a counterterrorism operative during the Bush administration.
And prosecutors also agreed to try to send Kiriakou to a minimum-security prison camp in Pennsylvania, not too far from his family - his wife and five kids - and also, to make sure his wife can't still get some of his federal government pension.
CORNISH: The trial was set to begin next month, how did they reach a plea deal?
JOHNSON: Well, there was a critical ruling made public last week by the judge which made it a lot harder for Kiriakou to defend himself. Kiriakou had been arguing he had no intent to harm the United States at all, as a long-time federal employee and that prosecutors would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he meant to hurt the U.S.
The judge last week said no, that's too high a bar. As somebody who had repeatedly pledged to keep America's secrets, prosecutors did not have to prove that Kiriakou intended to hurt the U.S., only that he had reason to believe this information could hurt the national security. And that ruling by the judge eviscerated the defense's key argument and launched plea talks.
CORNISH: This case is one of the most prominent leaked prosecutions by the Justice Department. So what happens next? And should we expect to see more like it?
JOHNSON: I think we should expect to see more like it. The Obama Justice Department has brought six cases under that Espionage Act. It's the most ever by a long shot. And they have not backed down in the face of criticism from reporters and some human rights groups, about some of these leaked prosecutions. Some of the cases have not ended as well for Justice; one in particular ended in embarrassment, several others are still tangling their way through the courts. But this is a big victory for Justice today.
CORNISH: NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thanks, Carrie.
JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.