The Justice Department on Monday charged a former Central Intelligence Agency officer with disclosing classified information to journalists about the capture and brutal interrogation of a suspected member of Al Qaeda, Abu Zubaydah — adding another chapter to the Obama administration’s crackdown on leaks.
In a criminal complaint filed on Monday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation accused John Kiriakou, the former C.I.A. officer, of disclosing the identity of a C.I.A. analyst who worked on a 2002 operation that located and interrogated Abu Zubaydah. The journalists included a New York Times reporter, it alleged.
“Safeguarding classified information, including the identities of C.I.A. officers involved in sensitive operations, is critical to keeping our intelligence officers safe and protecting our national security,” said Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., in a statement.
At the same time, the department on Monday cleared of wrongdoing a legal defense team for inmates at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for its efforts to identify officials involved in the coercive interrogations of “high value” suspects. The effort was a project by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to bolster the representation of detainees facing death sentences in military commissions.
Mr. Kiriakou, who was released on a $250,000 bond after appearing in federal court in Alexandria, Va., on Monday, was a leader of the team that captured Abu Zubaydah, and he came to public attention in late 2007 when he gave an interview to ABC News portraying the suffocation technique called waterboarding as torture, but calling it necessary. (It later emerged that he significantly understated the C.I.A.’s use of the technique.) His lawyer did not return a call for comment on Monday.
The prosecution of Mr. Kiriakou is the sixth criminal case brought under President Obama against current or former government officials accused of providing classified information to the media, more such cases than all previous presidents combined. The crackdown, long sought by the C.I.A. and other agencies, has won the administration some credit with security officials angered by the president’s earlier decision to release classified legal opinions on the agency’s interrogation program.
Officials have said the administration’s campaign against leaks has resulted from a belief among the intelligence agencies and members of both parties in Congress that unauthorized disclosures by government employees holding security clearances were out of control. But Mr. Obama entered office pledging unprecedented transparency for government operations, and his record has drawn fire from civil libertarians and groups supporting whistle-blowers and press freedoms.
Among other things, the F.B.I. complaint accuses Mr. Kiriakou of being a source for a June 2008 front-page Times article, written by reporter Scott Shane. It identified a C.I.A. employee, Deuce Martinez, who played a major role interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, believed to have handled logistics for Al Qaeda, and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Robert Christie, a spokesman for The Times, declined to comment.
The case is the second against a former C.I.A. officer for allegedly disclosing classified information to reporters within the past year. In 2011, Jeffrey Sterling, a former agency employee, was charged with leaking information allegedly used by James Risen, a Times reporter, in his 2006 book, “State of War.” (That case may be collapsing due to a judge’s ruling barring two witnesses from testifying; the prosecution has appealed.)
In a statement on Monday warning C.I.A. employees not to leak information, the C.I.A. director, David H. Petraeus, took note of both cases, saying that the agency “fully supported the investigation from the beginning and will continue to do so.”
The agency had initially pressed for an investigation of the Guantánamo detainee lawyers — not of its own former employee. The inquiry traces back to the spring of 2009, after government officials learned that Guantánamo defense lawyers were trying to identify C.I.A. interrogators — including the discovery of 32 pages of photographs in the cells of several Guantánamo detainees. The photos were a line-up of random people and suspected interrogators; the attorneys were trying to identify potential witnesses who could testify about abusive treatment, as mitigating evidence against death sentences.
That discovery led to an uproar within the C.I.A., where critics feared the move could put officials involved in the interrogation program at risk. The agency pressed for a criminal investigation, and Mr. Holder eventually appointed Patrick J. Fitzgerald, a United States attorney who led a high-profile C.I.A. leak investigation during the Bush administration, to handle it.
The investigation, in turn, led to Mr. Kiriakou. Citing e-mails, the complaint said he had disclosed the name of a different C.I.A. officer involved in the Zubaydah operation to another journalist, who in turn had supplied it to the a defense team investigator; it ended up in a classified court filing by defense attorneys in January 2009. (The investigator did not photograph the officer because his identity was covert, the complaint said, and no one has published his name.)
The F.B.I. also discovered other messages that it claimed showed Mr. Kiriakou was a source for The New York Times article about the interrogator. While his identity was not covert, The Times was criticized for publishing his name — including by Mr. Kiriakou.
Investigators, the complaint said, also found e-mails in which Mr. Kiriakou allegedly bragged to the co-author of his 2010 memoir, “The Reluctant Spy,” about misleading a C.I.A. review board about a classified technique for tracking cellphones, used in hunting Abu Zubaydah, so that they would not censor it. A reference to such a device also appeared in The Times article.
But, F.B.I. agent Joseph Capitano wrote in court documents, investigators cleared the defense team representing the detainees: “No law or military commission order expressly prohibited defense counsel from providing their clients with the photographic spreads in question under these circumstances.”
Anthony Romero, the executive director of the A.C.L.U., said the organization was “relieved” but criticized the opening of the investigation, saying it — and the Obama-era leak investigations more broadly — had had a “chilling effect on defense counsel, government whistle-blowers, and journalists.”