Further Implications of UndieBomb II Leaker Guilty Plea

As you have likely heard by now, a former FBI agent has agreed to plead guilty to leaking material about the second underwear bomb attempt to reporters in May of 2012. Charlie Savage of the New York Times has the primary rundown:

A former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent has agreed to plead guilty to leaking classified information to The Associated Press about a foiled bomb plot in Yemen last year, the Justice Department announced on Monday. Federal investigators said they identified him after obtaining phone logs of Associated Press reporters.

The retired agent, a former bomb technician named Donald Sachtleben, has agreed to serve 43 months in prison, the Justice Department said. The case brings to eight the number of leak-related prosecutions brought under President Obama’s administration; under all previous presidents, there were three such cases.

“This prosecution demonstrates our deep resolve to hold accountable anyone who would violate their solemn duty to protect our nation’s secrets and to prevent future, potentially devastating leaks by those who would wantonly ignore their obligations to safeguard classified information,” said Ronald C. Machen Jr., the United States attorney for the District of Columbia, who was assigned to lead the investigation by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

In a twist, Mr. Sachtleben, 55, of Carmel, Ind., was already the subject of a separate F.B.I. investigation for distributing child pornography, and has separately agreed to plead guilty in that matter and serve 97 months. His total sentence for both sets of offenses, should the plea deal be accepted by a judge, is 140 months.

Here is the DOJ Press Release on the case.

Here is the information filed in SDIN (Southern District of Indiana). And here is the factual basis for the guilty plea on the child porn charges Sachtleben is also pleading guilty to.

So Sachtleben is the leaker, he’s going to plead guilty and this all has a nice beautiful bow on it! Yay! Except that there are several troubling issues presented by all this tidy wonderful case wrap up.

First off, the information on the leak charges refers only to “Reporter A”, “Reporter A’s news organization” and “another reporter from Reporter A’s news organization”. Now while the DOJ may be coy about the identities, it has long been clear that the “news organization” is the AP and “Reporter A” and “another reporter” are AP national security reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman (I’d hazard a guess probably in that order) and the subject article for the leak is this AP report from May 7, 2012.

What is notable about who the reporters are, and which story is involved, is that this is the exact matter that was the subject of the infamous AP phone records subpoenas that were incredibly broad – over 20 business and personal phone lines. These subpoenas, along with those in the US v. Steven Kim case collected against James Rosen and Fox News, caused a major uproar about the sanctity of First Amendment press and government intrusion thereon.

The issue here is that Attorney General Eric Holder and the DOJ, as a result of the uproar over the AP and Fox News discovery abuse, grudgingly announced new guidelines in a glossy six page document released on July 12, 2013 to much fanfare. The DOJ promised to, in the future:

…utilize such tools only as a last resort, after all reasonable alternative investigative steps have been taken, and when the information sought is essential to a successful investigation or prosecution.

However the sentiment so proudly expressed by DOJ in July seems more than a little faint with the emphasis they placed yesterday on only being able to solve the UndieBomber II leak case because:

Sachtleben was identified as a suspect in the case of this unauthorized disclosure only after toll records for phone numbers related to the reporter were obtained through a subpoena and compared to other evidence collected during the leak investigation.

Hard to see how such pointed braggadocio is not a not so subtle notice that DOJ considers anything they deem a “national security” related leak, which is about everything to the Obama Administration, to be fair game for investigation and discovery of reporters and news organizations, both on a business and personal level, as was done here with respect to Apuzzo, Goldman and the AP. Once again, the Obama Administration PR show belies what it is doing, and will do in practice.

The second thing of note about yesterday’s announcement is that it has all the markings of finality, and I am informed that indeed such is the case and no further charges are forthcoming. Now, as to Sachtleben, that is fair; the government has him cold through phone and email records, travel records and his admission of guilt in a signed information where he flat out said he was no whistleblower by admitting that he:

did not believe that he was exposing government waste, fraud, abuse, or any other kind of government malfeasance or misfeasance.

So Sachtleben is cooked, and that is all well and good. But if this is all over, what about the “other” leak that was part of the mid May 2012 leakfest, i.e. the one that really was a dangerous affront to operational security concerns. You know, the one where the Saudi agent (double agent?) who acquired UndieBomb II was burned.

The Saudi agent story was not part of Apuzzo and Goldman’s original reporting and was by all appearances first broken by ABC and Richard Clarke after participating in a background phone call by, who else, John Brennan, and then LA Times, CNN, NYT and a host of others in succession picked up the ball and ran with it. It is unclear whether AP had the story too and, if so, whether any part of it came from Sachtleben. There is no mention of the Saudi agent, the story of his work, possible involvement in the al-Quso drone strike, or any indication that Sachtleben could have garnered that information, contained in the DOJ press release and criminal information.

In fact, the reports on the Saudi agent consistently referred to what appears to be a Saudi official as a leaker, but with confirmations, which themselves are clear leaks, from multiple Obama Administration officials. One of said officials clearly leaking what was still classified information was none other than John Brennan. The leaker who was subsequently installed as head of the CIA. One leaker gets prison, and the other gets a promotion to CIA director. But that is how the Obama Administration hypocritically rolls.

So, what of the Obama Administration officials chattering to the press, both in the first instance, and as confirmation sources regarding UndieBomb II plot and the Saudi operation? What about the Saudi leaker? For that matter, what about the government sources that confirmed the AP information from Sachtleben? What about the sources, some clearly Administration based, for the CNN, LA Times and ABC reports? While many of them are undoubtedly the same individuals, all of those seem to be swept under the rug by Sachtleben’s plea, even though he is obviously but one part of the equation. And by all appearances, Sachtleben is far from the most damaging part.

In fairness, Josh Gerstein relates this:

The court papers in Sachtleben’s case don’t describe precisely what damage his leak caused, nor do they make any reference to an informant or double agent being endangered. However, a U.S. official said prosecutors haven’t put all the details in the public documents in order to avoid compounding the damage.

That is a pretty vague and unsatisfactory answer to the pertinent questions. The damage is already done, Brennan and others did part of it and answers better than just the Sachtleben wrap are due.

Next, there is the issue of the “investigative” work the DOJ is so proud of in its press release and criminal complaint on Sachtleben. Remember, DOJ collected on 20 different phone lines alone including multiple AP bureau offices, and business, home and cell numbers of AP reporters. That is pretty much the main backbone for AP governmental and national security reportage. Add in the additional collection on their email and text records.

The full scope of the collection is delineated in paragraphs 5, 8, 9, 11, 13 and 14 of the criminal information. And the phone and email collection was not just metadata, but as the above described paragraphs make clear, full content too. Since these subpoenas were after the fact, that means the vaunted NSA storage database was likely used. How many “hops” were made off of the AP lines? (Remember, 3 hops off of one person making 40 calls can be 2.5 million people).

Frankly one hop off the lot of the AP phones could yield a massive number of targets, and the most precious ones to First Amendment journalism. This post is long enough without going into specifics of the surveillance implications from the collection on the AP and its top reporters, but suffice it to say the implications to, and chilling effect on, governmental and national security reportage is immense.

Lastly, there is the presumptive regularity that must be given to the stated timing of the national security prong of the case against Sachtleben vis a vis the child porn prong. But take a look at the end of Charlie Savage’s report in the NYT:

As it turns out, the contractor was about to take a trip to Quantico. On May 2, he visited the lab where the underwear device was being examined, it said, and soon called the reporter.

Two and a half hours later, the court filing said, two A.P. reporters began calling government officials saying they knew that the United States government had intercepted a bomb from Yemen and that the F.B.I. was analyzing it.

The next day, May 3, 2012, law enforcement agents in Indiana, working on an unrelated case involving the distribution of child pornography on the Internet, obtained a search warrant for Mr. Sachtleben’s house, court filings show. They seized his computers on May 11.

Once again, very convenient how it all came together. I am sure it all happened legitimately like the government claims, but it certainly would be a lot easier to bite off on fully if the government’s propensity for “parallel construction” of cases were not known (and, no, it is not only the DEA who uses the technique).

The above are but some of the key questions and implications arising from yesterday’s announcement by the DOJ of the wrapping up of the UndieBomb II investigation by the charging of Donald Sachtleben. It is a convenient end for the government, but a rather unsatisfying one for the intelligence of the public.

23 replies
  1. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    Bmaz, thanks, pretty much confirms that when the government wants to cook-your-goose they will have all the evidence they need.

    To those who say, “if I’ve done nothing wrong I have nothing to hide” just remember, we all do something wrong every day. When we are finally government targets they will parallel construct a case and you can go quietly or have everything you’ve ever done revealed and really suffer.

    If you haven’t watched the movie about the Stasi called Lives of Others, you really should.

    We all are vulnerable and anyone who thinks they have done nothing wrong is delusional.

  2. peasantparty says:

    I have to say it. The minute I saw the words, “child porn” I knew it was a stirring pot. We have all seen how the FBI uses that one particular offense to start off a case. I asked Josh last night if the porn was found on his FBI computer stuff, or his personal computer. I don’t think that is clear yet. If I am wrong, please correct me.

    Brennan has a leakage problem of his own, and we have seen this is not the first time he has used reporters for a specific dragnet. The harmful Nat. Security excuses are about to run out as a reason to do these things to keep the public ignorant.

    I have questions a mile long about the NSA meta data gathering. The first one is who is exempt from the collection. Is Alexander, Clapper, and someone like Henry Kissinger included in the constant monitoring? How about Cheney and his Corporate ties?

  3. peasantparty says:

    @Greg Bean (@GregLBean): Nothing wrong is compounded daily into whatever the NSA determines a specific action to be. There is no conformity, and no specifics for what they call terror. They can call you a terrorist if you gather at the corner shop and talk with friends.

  4. Chetnolian says:

    @peasantparty: It is worse than that. Does the NSA database include the mails etc. of Durbin R, Reid H, McConnell M, Cornyn J, Bernanke B., Brennan J, Holder E, Obama B. Obama M and really scarily Obama S and Obama M (Jnr)? Think of the power that gives whoever has access to it and ask yourself if you have total confidence that power will never be used?

    I could ask the same about the UK but you probably wouldn’t know the names!

  5. Frank33 says:

    That chatty social media expert PJ Crowley has joined the public debate about False Flag Undie Bomb plots.

    An unanswered question in the #Sachtleben leak case is at what point should the traveling public know about an active aviation bomb plot?— Philip J. Crowley (@PJCrowley) September 24, 2013

    And I can answer that question. You want to know about it before your flight takes off. We have, count them TWO Undie bombers. Undie #1 was “thwarted” except he was not. Undie #2 was going to keep repeating Undie attacks until the Al Qaeda Headquarters was discovered. And the brilliant Saudi bombmaker conveniently eludes capture.

    But it is “abuse” by the government to support terrorism. That includes giving nuclear weapon technology to Iran. Operation Merlin was exposed by reporter James Risen, who is on the Obama Enemies List.

  6. GKJames says:

    Brings to mind the prosecutorial glory days in Stalin’s 1930’s paradise: “But I’m not guilty of anything!” “Not guilty of ANYTHING??” Next you knew, your family was getting an invoice for the ammunition used to dispatch you.

    And this highlights the concerns about dragnets. Prosecutors will find SOMETHING, not on which to hang, let alone win, a meritorious case, but merely to extort a guilty plea out of you for whatever allegations they want to contrive. And, in most instances, the federal bench will play along.

  7. William Ockham says:

    Does the FBI use Google Maps to conduct “physical surveillance”? I’m just asking because in the child porn document, there is this item:

    20. On May 2, 2012, SDA Reifel conducted physical surveillance of 11175 Saint Andrews Lane, Carmel, Indiana, 46032 and noted one vehicle in the driveway described as a red truck.

    If you search for that address on Google Maps, there is a photo (dated Aug 2009) that shows a red pickup truck in the driveway. From the leak document, we know that the dude was at Quantico on May 2. When the child porn investigators served the search warrant on him (on May 11), he was returning from the airport in a Chevy Suburban (no color given).

    Now maybe the dude’s wife drives a pickup truck (that wouldn’t be unusual in my neck of the woods, but in a snazzy golf course community in Illinois?), but it just seems a little weird.

  8. der says:

    Brennan’s free-pass blabbing brings to mind that great patriot Scooter Libby & his pal Richard Armitage, sources to the late respectable journalist Bob Novak and how that all turned out. Examples of Greenwald’s “Liberty and Justice for Some.”

    Nothing will change, in the halls of power I mean. Obama and those who follow will not duplicate Nixon’s shame, the NSA/DEA is making sure of that. That is unless the free press starts taking their 1st Amendment duties seriously – nah, Alexa O’Brien bitingly tells us that her disappointment and disdain comes from the fact that most american journalists are “lazy and incompetent and they don’t care.” (Appropriately the name Alexa means defender of man.)

    Still the frogs in The Village/This Town have less than 10 years to look beyond their world inside the beltway to the one that’s slowly warming. Mother Nature will have her way. Sociopaths.

  9. bmaz says:

    @William Ockham: Great question. Note also in the Porn Statement of Facts, that they had Special Agents (i.e. feds) surveilling him at the airport on May 3, when he was returning from Quantico, while he was carrying the VAIO laptop. Which is pretty thorough work for a run of the mill child porn investigation that had meandered along for so long. That same day, the search warrant was issued, even though it was not executed until 8 days later (which makes it at least in the arguably stale range, although a defense lawyer would undoubtedly lose that argument).

  10. masaccio says:

    I’m still having trouble with the time line. Do we think the child porn was going on before the NatSec investigation?

  11. P J Evans says:

    @William Ockham:
    You would expect them to know that streetview isn’t real-time. (What I hated, at work, was when stuff showed up in streetview before the paperwork got to us.)

  12. bmaz says:

    @masaccio: Probably. The better question is did they stumble into Sachtleben from the child porn as alleged, or stumble into the child porn cover as a result of finding him through inappropriate surveillance of the AP reporters? I don’t know the answer, but I have questions.

  13. emptywheel says:

    @bmaz: Or did they decide to pursue Sachtleben on child porn charges they had known about because of the leak?

    That’s my guess at the moment.

    Remember, too, that we should not accept DOJ’s timeline, especially not on the AP-Sachtleben contacts. We know they had contact on April 30. That doesn’t exclude contact on April 29. And they’d never have to tell us any differently, given that he plead.

  14. bmaz says:

    @emptywheel: Possible. That is not inconsistent with what I said if you take into account who the “they” are that “knew” about the child porn. Some local task force that maybe even casually had submitted bulk info to local Feds etc…..or NSD types that are making things happen. I have not much problem believing the guy is a child porn guy, but that whole gig looked pretty sluggish, and not particularly close to him….until it needed to be because of the NatSec prong.

    As to contacts, sure; heck, paragraph 5 makes pretty clear that Sachtleben had a reporter/source relationship since 2009. Govt may have been up on this relationship for a long time. There are sure a boatload of reasons they would be targeting Matt and Adam. So….

  15. orionATL says:

    this assumes porn charge is both legitimate and sufficiently violative.

    3+ years for spilling gov’s secrets and 8 for child porn seems light merely for the secrets part, which involved, according to our AG, “one of the worst breeches blah, blah, blah…”

    there are some pieces missing from the puzzle at this point.

    if he was charged for porn 9 days after talking with ap, somebody at doj did some fast checking of ap phone calls without a warrant. perhaps the phones were already being tapped in perpetuity by nsa.

    still, it’s all police work, all retrospective information acquiring, and all suppressive of whistleblowing.

    at this point, unexplained points include why doj would persist in prosecuting when brennan had blabbed, when the whitehouse had cleared the ap’s release of the story, and when the whitehouse had intended to release this info itself.

    whitehouse hypocrisy and authoritarian gov’t behavior employed to police the unwelcome release of info the whitehouse considers its personal property, seem to abound in this case.

  16. orionATL says:

    another puzzle is why would an experienced former fbi employee, acting as a consultant, leave a meeting about a fake terrorist bombing and immediately contact the ap reporters?

    the guy knows the doj/fbi’s ways.

    had he already learned at his meetings at quantico that the psuedo-bomber would never return to yemen?

    was he asked, or given tacit permission, to leak the info, posdibly as part of a bureaucratic war?

    plea bargains, like sealed court records, can hide a lot.

  17. orionATL says:


    thanks, bmaz.

    al-q’s malign motives are not at issue, as i’m sure you understood.

    my under(wear)standing was the bomb was designed to not go off, and that, subsequently, agent would return to yemen and claim that that was what happened.

    are you saying the bomb was known to be competently made and capable of exploding in a plane?

    is that well confirmed?

    because previous bombs have not been competently made, and this one was given no chance to prove its competence.

    is it well established that the only protection for a flight carrying the bomber and his u-pants was that the “bomber” was somebody’s agent?

    if so, no wonder the u.s. gov did not want this bruited about!

    they were willing to risk a lot of lives on the promise an agent of some government would ensure the device did not explode.

    good thing this guy wasn’t of the same mind as the 2/3 agent at kost.

    as for the “fake” i referred to, that should be self-evident. this bomb was in the hands of an agent and then in the hands of the fbi before
    it had any chance of doing any harm to any airplane and its passengers.

    the entire gov’t effort to “discover” the leaker (when he had already been discovered by fbi/nsa) for “secrets revealed” ,

    seems shadowed by multiple instances of gov’t dishonesty.

  18. orionATL says:

    not that our gov’t would entertain the notion,

    but could it be possible the c-porn arrest came down 9 days after the bomb expert’s early may meeting at quantico, because he was unco-operative in helping build some whitehouse-desired official narrative about the bomb and intended bombing?

  19. thatvisionthing says:

    @bmaz: Long victim impact statement read in trial of Undiebomber #1 describes what a passenger observed before, on and after the flight that lead him to believe Abdulmutallab was being shepherded and the bomb was a fake, and ends this way:


    When I attended the jury selection hearings, I questioned why versions of the same two questions kept coming up, those being:

    1. Do you think you’ll be able to tell whether something is actually a bomb? and
 2. Do you realize that sometimes the media doesn’t always tell the truth?

    I continued to be greatly saddened at this point as I felt the truth continued to be hidden.

    When Umar listed me as his only witness, I was happy to testify, not on his behalf, but on behalf of the truth. I never expected to testify, as my eyewitness account would have been too damaging to the myth that the government and media are putting forward. A mere 5 days after I was announced as a witness, there was an inexplicable guilty plea which exasperated me as I no longer would be testifying.

    In closing I will just say that regardless of how the media and government try to shape the public perception of this case, I am convinced that Umar was given an intentionally defective bomb by a U.S. Government agent and placed on our flight without showing a passport or going through security, to stage a false terrorist attack to be used to implement various government policies.

    The effect this matter has had on my life has been astounding and due to this case, I will never trust the government in any matter, ever.

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