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Ex-FBI agent faces sentence Thursday for leaking files

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Terry Albury at his special agent graduation in 2005.
Terry Albury is pictured at his special agent graduation ceremony in 2005. Albury claims he was morally conflicted when he disclosed FBI practices about cultivating informants.
Courtesy of Fil Belay

When then-FBI agent Terry Albury leaked classified documents to a reporter in 2016, he says, he was in the throes of an internal crisis.

As the only black field agent for most of his five years in the Minneapolis division, he struggled to overcome what became "an insurmountable moral conflict," according to recent court documents filed by his attorneys.

On the one hand, he had sworn to uphold the law. On the other, the documents say, he had become disenchanted with FBI counterterrorism practices that he regarded as profiling and intimidating to minority communities.

U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright will sentence the 39-year-old Albury Thursday morning in St. Paul. As the second person to be prosecuted by the Trump administration for leaking documents to journalists, Albury, who pleaded guilty to the charges, is seeking a sentence of probation.

But federal prosecutors say he abused the public trust and are recommending he serve more than four years in prison.

And they aren't buying the argument that he was morally conflicted.

"To be sure, were the defendant truly troubled or disturbed or at odds with FBI policies or practices, he could have walked away," officials with the U.S. Department of Justice wrote last week in a court filing. "He could have walked away at any time over the past 15 years — quietly or loudly, so long as he did not disclose classified or national defense information."

Albury was charged with sharing secret documents with the online news publication The Intercept. He also admitted to a second count of unlawfully retaining national defense information.

In 2016, court records show, he began downloading and copying classified information about the FBI's policies. An FBI investigation into Albury found he took pictures of the documents from a computer screen, as well as cut and pasted them into separate files for printing, so as to avoid detection. Prosecutors say it was a calculated scheme in which he stole 70 documents, the majority of which were classified.

One internal FBI document, titled "Confidential Human Source Assessing," outlined tips for cultivating informants.

He then turned over some of the files to the press. While court filings do not explicitly name the news organization involved, the documents described in a search warrant request against Albury match the trove of documents posted by The Intercept.

The following year, The Intercept posted the document and a story raising civil-liberties questions about the FBI's approach to recruiting informants. The news site reported that agents have the authority to investigate aggressively anyone who they believe might be a valuable source for the FBI.

Albury himself had some success in turning people into informants, recent court records show.

In April 2015, then-FBI Director James Comey honored him with an award for "exceptional efforts in the recruitment of two Confidential Human Sources."

And in July 2016, Albury and another agent made a surprise visit to the apartment of Burhan Mohumed, a Somali-American community organizer from Minneapolis who frequently criticized the government's approach to countering violent extremism. Mohumed refused to open the door, saying he would not speak to them without an attorney present. The agents did not have a warrant.

In a video of the encounter Mohumed took and later shared with the liberal-activist site AlterNet, one of the agents can be heard saying that they wanted to talk to him about "radicalism in the community."

"You could just make this easier, or make this hard," an agent says.

"It's kind of scary to have two white guys coming into the neighborhood looking for people," Mohumed tells the agents.

"I'm not white, brother," responds one of the agents behind the door, before parting ways.

Last week, a court document filed by Albury's attorneys identified their client as that agent.

"This was an every-day encounter for Mr. Albury," reads the brief co-written by Minneapolis attorney JaneAnne Murray. "He comported himself in this setting as a model FBI agent. But the conflict and depression generated by these routine but soul-destroying events took its toll."

Reached this week by phone, Mohumed said there's no doubt in his mind that Albury was trying to turn him into an informant. The 28-year-old organizer said he thinks the FBI purposely relied on Albury, whose mother was an Ethiopian immigrant, to establish relationships among vulnerable Somali-American community members in Minnesota.

"They put him in a position where he would be easy bait for folks who looked like him," Mohumed told MPR News. "He would go into these communities, talk to them, and build a relationship so they could set people up and turn them into informants."

Mohumed said he didn't realize until recently that the agent who visited him was the same man who spilled the beans on secret FBI tactics. And he's sensitive to any notion that Albury is a hero, given his many years of working surveillance and recruiting informants for the FBI.

"In no way do I sympathize with what he's going through," he said.

The role of informants was a flashpoint in the case against several Twin Cities men convicted of supporting ISIS. At trial, prosecutors played damning audio recordings, collected by a friend who decided to work for the FBI, as the men expressed their desire to travel to Syria and join the terrorist group.

Racial isolation

Over his 16-year career with the FBI, which included stints in California and deployment to Iraq, Albury became particularly troubled by the FBI's approach to counterterrorism.

He contended he was under pressure to bolster his squad's number of active investigations and informants, even if he believed the cases were thin. A court document filed by his attorneys said he tried expressing his concerns to his supervisors in San Jose, but they were never addressed.

Albury also said he struggled with racial discrimination among his colleagues, particularly in Minneapolis. He "felt increasingly isolated and sickened by the racism he experienced within and without his squad," reads one court document.

The FBI is overwhelmingly white. At one point, Comey called the lack of diversity a crisis. In the Minneapolis field office, 6.8 percent of the staff are minorities, according to figures provided by the federal government in response to a request from defense attorneys.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 17 law professors have filed briefs in support of Albury, noting the threat to newsgathering and the public at large if he is harshly punished for disclosing secrets to the press. In August 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Justice Department had more than tripled the number of investigations into leaks of classified information to the media since President Trump took office.

Albury's offense shouldn't be punished as espionage, wrote the professors, who include Heidi Kitrosser and Jane Kirtley of the University of Minnesota. 

"Mr. Albury's disclosure triggered an important public debate about specific FBI practices as well as the broader question of whether the FBI should be able to keep the rules governing its domestic investigations secret and therefore largely immune from democratic scrutiny," the professors wrote. "His sentence should reflect these facts."

Attorneys for Albury, who has two young children, say "he acted solely out of concern for the public good." The FBI fired him, and Albury's attorneys say there is no chance he will repeat his crime. His supporters  are raising money for his legal defense fees.

Prosecutors say those claims of good intentions are not to be believed. They say Albury's crime lasted 18 months and stopped only when his colleagues caught him in the act.

"This case is not about race. Nor is it about blowing any whistles," prosecutors wrote. "It is most certainly not about moral injuries. What it is about is the unlawful transmission and retention of classified national defense information by someone who fully understood how wrong his conduct was."