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Ex-Mpls. FBI agent who leaked to reporter gets 4 years in prison

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Former Minneapolis FBI agent Terry Albury.
Former Minneapolis FBI agent Terry Albury walks out of the Federal Courthouse in St. Paul Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018.
Shari L. Gross | Star Tribune via AP

Updated: 6 p.m. | Posted: 2:15 p.m.

A former FBI agent will serve four years in prison for leaking classified information to the press.

Terry Albury, 39, spent his entire career with the FBI and worked most recently on counterterrorism for the Minneapolis division. In 2016, he shared internal documents with a reporter after becoming increasingly troubled by investigative practices that he believed targeted and intimidated Minnesota's Somali-American community.

U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright said Thursday she believed Albury, who was one of the few African-American field agents in the region, struggled with a sincere moral conflict.

"The moral conflict is not the one you're being judged on today," she said, adding that Albury's bad judgment that resulted in a serious crime is what will land him in prison.

"You perceived your actions to be honorable," Wright said. "Maybe that was your motivation, but it was a misguided understanding of honor. It put our country at risk."

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

One of the internal FBI documents he shared provided tips on how agents should cultivate informants. Albury's defense team portrayed a patriot who felt compelled to blow the whistle on what he interpreted as FBI profiling and intimidation of communities of color. His lawyer, Joshua Dratel, also said Albury experienced or observed racial animus within the bureau that followed him his entire career.

Former Minneapolis FBI agent Terry Albury and his attorney, Joshua Dratel.
Former Minneapolis FBI agent Terry Albury and his attorney, Joshua Dratel, left, walk out of the Federal Courthouse in St. Paul Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018.
Shari L. Gross | Star Tribune via AP

In court, Albury appeared wrought with emotion, his shoulders heaving, as he choked back tears and addressed Wright from the podium. He said he joined the FBI out of college with a desire to change the world. In his mind, the FBI "represented the best of America," he told the judge.

But as he grew more experienced, Albury said he could not ignore the more "detrimental aspects" of FBI practices. He sought to address his concerns by leaking sensitive documents to the media, an act he said he now recognized was wrong.

Albury apologized to his family, his former colleagues and the broader law enforcement community. The FBI fired him in 2017 after discovering his offense.

"I truly wanted to make a difference and never wanted to put anyone in danger," he said.

Wright, who is also African-American, said he might have squandered his opportunity to shed light on these concerns. The judge called his decision to disclose national defense secrets "a fool's errand."

"I'm not blind to the racism that exists in our society — it has been in the making for hundreds of years," she said. "I daresay it will be part of our future for some time."

She urged him to continue to fight racism and injustices after his release from prison. Albury will also serve three years of supervised release. 

"It's too late to undo the decisions you made. It's not too late for you to move forward with your life," she said.

Federal prosecutor Patrick Murphy, with the National Security Division of the Department of Justice, argued that Albury abused the public trust. Murphy also said the agent should have walked away from his job if he was as depressed and isolated as the defense team suggested. Prosecutors had recommended a prison sentence of 52 months, while the defense had said a sentence of probation was appropriate.

Albury was the second person to be prosecuted for a media leak since President Trump took office. Reality Winner, a government contractor who mailed a classified report on Russian hacking to a news organization, received a sentence of five years in prison. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has promised an aggressive crackdown on leaks of classified information. In a statement today, he heralded the news from St. Paul.

"Today's sentence should be a warning to every would-be leaker in the federal government that if they disclose classified information, they will pay a high price," Sessions said.

Albury's case was closely watched by journalists and First Amendment law professors who were concerned that a harsh sentence would harm news-gathering and the flow of information to the public. 

Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he disagreed with the sentence. He said Albury's claims confirmed suspicions among many Somali-American community members that they are being unfairly targeted.

"Unless the FBI comes forward to rebuild trust, this definitely will have a huge impact," Hussein said.