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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

And now an update on the Obama administration's aggressive campaign against leaks. Former CIA official John Kiriakou will head to a Virginia courthouse today, where he's expected to plead not guilty to revealing government secrets. He's the sixth person accused of violating the Espionage Act during Mr. Obama's presidency. But his supporters say he's a whistleblower, not a spy. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Prosecutors say John Kiriakou broke a solemn pledge he took when he joined the CIA in 1990 by sharing information about his former colleagues with reporters from the New York Times and ABC News.

JESSELYN RADACK: This is really all about politics and has little to do with justice.

JOHNSON: Jesselyn Radack works on security and human rights for the Government Accountability Project. She says the pursuit of Kiriakou has more to do with his public comments about waterboarding, or simulated drowning of terrorism suspects, than any real damage he did to national security.

RADACK: Nobody who - from the CIA - who did the torture, no one who ordered the torture, none of the lawyers who authorized the torture, and none of the people who destroyed the videotapes of it, have been prosecuted.

JOHNSON: After all, Radack says, the biggest leaker in the U.S. is the government itself, happy to share details about its success, such as the mission to kill Osama bin Laden.

Ken Wainstein used to run the national security division at the Justice Department.

KEN WAINSTEIN: I think everybody would agree that transparency within government is a good thing and is necessary to a functioning, democratic form of government.

JOHNSON: But he says that goal can conflict with the running of sensitive intelligence operations.

WAINSTEIN: When you sign on for employment in a national security agency, you promise to maintain the confidentiality of what you're doing. And you promise that you will not disclose government secrets.

JOHNSON: And that, the Justice Department says, is a promise that John Kiriakou broke repeatedly in his contacts with at least three reporters. He's accused of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act for sharing the name of an undercover CIA operative. Experts say it's a law that's never been used in a case that actually went to trial.

Steve Aftergood tracks government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. He sees some holes in the federal case.

STEVE AFTERGOOD: The name of the undercover officer never became public, so you know, what's a jury going to do with that? It seems unlikely they're going to throw the book at the defendant if the offense was a technical one.

JOHNSON: Kiriakou is also charged with three counts of violating the Espionage Act, in part for telling reporters that another colleague worked on the capture of al-Qaida suspect Abu Zubaydah. Aftergood says the Justice Department faces a big hurdle there too.

AFTERGOOD: The government will have to show that Mr. Kiriakou did not simply reveal classified information, but that in doing so he specifically intended to harm the United States or to aid some other foreign country.

JOHNSON: Last year, the Justice Department mostly backed off another controversial espionage case against a former worker at the National Security Agency. But the legal process took a heavy toll, Radack says.

RADACK: I think the human cost is that people at best end up blacklisted, bankrupt and broken. John Kiriakou right now is selling his house to be able to pay legal bills.

JOHNSON: Bills that could run upwards of a million dollars. His friends have set up a website to take donations. But Wainstein, the former Justice official, says authorities weigh the importance of a leak before they ever decide to move forward with a criminal case.

WAINSTEIN: The reality is, the Justice Department does not willy-nilly prosecute every leak of classified information.

JOHNSON: Kiriakou faces as many as 30 years in prison.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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