WASHINGTON (AP) — A State Department expert on North Korea pleaded guilty Friday to passing classified information to a journalist, and has agreed to a 13-month sentence in a deal with prosecutors, pending a judge's approval.
Stephen Kim, who pleaded guilty to making an unauthorized disclosure of national defense information, faced a maximum of 10 years in prison had he been convicted of that charge. Prosecutors agreed to drop a second count, making false statements. If he had been convicted of both crimes at trial, Kim would have faced 15 years in prison, his lawyer said. Kim could be released in less than a year for good behavior.
The case stems from a June 2009 story by Fox News journalist James Rosen. He reported that U.S. intelligence officials warned the president and senior U.S. officials that North Korea would respond to a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning nuclear tests with another nuclear test.
Justice Department officials said Kim's plea concludes the investigation and the prosecution of the case, which was scheduled to go to trial in April. Kim is scheduled to be sentenced on April 2.
Kim, 46, who was born in Seoul, worked as a senior adviser for intelligence to the assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance and implementation.
The material at issue in the Kim case came from an intelligence report that had been communicated to officials in the intelligence community, including Kim, on the morning that Rosen's story appeared, according to an FBI affidavit for a search warrant in the probe.
Under questioning from U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, Kim admitted that he "orally" disclosed the report to Rosen on North Korea's military capabilities and preparedness, and that Kim was not authorized to disclose the report to Rosen or any other member of the media. Kim also agreed that he was not claiming he made the leak to expose waste, fraud or abuse.
Kim answered the judge's questions in a soft but deep voice. The only time he veered from his script was when he described his legal team as "the best."
"How do you plead?" Kollar-Kotelly asked.
"I plead guilty," Kim answered. He then sat down at the defense table and took a sip of water. After the hearing, an emotional Kim hugged a supporter in a courthouse elevator.
In a statement, Kim's sister, Yuri Lustenberger-Kim, said that over the past four years, the government's prosecution "has taken a horrific toll on my brother and our entire family."
"Our parents survived the atrocities, hunger and poverty of World War II on the Korean Peninsula and then the Korean War," said Lustenberger-Kim, described as a family spokeswoman. "Our parents lost their parents and family members and entire life's belongings as refugees during the Korean War. We struggled with the illnesses of our parents and children but nothing as wrenching as today's decision."
The case has been especially controversial because the FBI affidavit characterized Rosen as a "co-conspirator" with Kim and said that there was probable cause to believe that the reporter committed a violation of criminal law.
Law enforcement officials used the affidavit to search some of Rosen's private emails. Investigators also tracked Rosen's comings and goings from the State Department, linking those movements with Kim on the day of the leak.
Rosen did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. The State Department declined to comment.
The disclosure of the FBI affidavit in the Kim case came after the Obama administration acknowledged secretly seizing portions of two months of phone records from The Associated Press while investigating a different disclosure of government information. Following both cases, President Barack Obama said that the Justice Department would review the policy under which it obtains journalists' records in investigations of the leak of government secrets.
"Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs. Our focus must be on those who break the law," Obama said last May.
In July, the Justice Department announced that it was toughening its guidelines for subpoenaing reporters' phone records, and also raising the standard the government needs to meet before it can issue search warrants to gather reporters' email. The guidelines have not yet been implemented.
In a statement Friday, Ronald C. Machen, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said that Kim "admitted to violating his oath to protect our country by disclosing highly classified intelligence about North Korea's military capabilities ... As this prosecution demonstrates, we will not waver in our commitment to pursuing and holding accountable government officials who blatantly disregard their obligations to protect our nation's most highly guarded secrets."
But Kim's lawyer, Abbe D. Lowell, said that his client didn't reveal any intelligence sources or methods.
"The information at issue was less sensitive or surprising than much of what we read in the newspaper every day," Lowell said in a statement.
The case shows that the nation's system for prosecuting leaks "is broken and terribly unfair," he added. "Lower-level employees like Mr. Kim are prosecuted because they are easier targets or often lack the resources or political connections to fight back. High-level employees leak classified information to forward their agenda or to make an administration look good with impunity."
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