Conspiracy theories sprout from coincidences and, like fungus, grow in darkness. Accordingly, questions surrounding the case of Donald Sachtleben—the former FBI bomb tech and Carmel resident convicted last November of trafficking child pornography and leaking national-security secrets—continue to mushroom.
As a special agent, Sachtleben had a hand in some of the most important bombing investigations in recent American memory, from the Unabomber to Oklahoma City to the World Trade Center attacks of 1993 and 2001. When federal authorities arrested him in May 2012 on charges of possessing and distributing sexually explicit images of children, the news fell like a bombshell on Central Indiana. Who even knew that such a distinguished FBI bigshot lived here? And how could a lawman of that stature commit such despicable crimes?
The blogosphere, however, greeted the allegations not with shock, but with speculation. In a post headlined “OKC & 9/11 Investigator Victim of Set-Up?” alt-news gurus Alex Jones and Paul Joseph Watson claimed “the FBI is notorious for setting people up” and wondered if, “given the ease with which Internet Protocol Spoofing can be used to impersonate another computer system,” perhaps the bomb tech, who had retired from the FBI but still worked for the agency as a contractor, was “in possession of information deemed too sensitive for him to remain a free man.”
While Sachtleben stayed mum, a local article stoked suspicion with a quote from one of his attorneys, Charles Hayes. A few days after the arrest—and a full year before Sachtleben would sign a plea deal—the online text version of a news story by WRTV quoted Hayes as saying his client “certainly would know that one of the FBI’s major projects is hunting down child pornography, so I can’t imagine he did this while still working.” Wait—he did this? Conspiracists seized on the remark as a clue that even Sachtleben’s own counsel was rolling him over. (Never mind that Hayes hadn’t actually said it; the comment came from a former FBI colleague of Sachtleben’s but was misattributed on the website.)
When the feds finally announced Sachtleben’s plea deal and posted a detailed account of the investigation online, elements of it, along with Sachtleben’s continued silence, provided additional fodder. According to the document, authorities first learned of his activities while monitoring a child-porn target in Illinois who received an e-mail offer to exchange pictures from someone at an IP address that investigators tracked to Sachtleben’s Carmel residence. The FBI placed the home under surveillance and obtained a warrant to search the former agent’s electronic devices. On May 11, 2012, they tailed him home from the airport after a work trip, seized his laptop, and found around 30 illicit images and videos.
Why, skeptics wondered, would a seasoned G-man travel with such a radioactive stash and, presumably, carry it right to the nerve center of U.S. law enforcement? Even the e-mail address he used to trade the material, email@example.com, sounded like something a hack crime writer would create for a fictional frame-up.
The bizarre details bred incredulity. But a full-blown conspiracy theory needs a motive to thrive. And last September, the government served up a doozy: On top of the child-porn prosecution, it announced, Sachtleben had agreed to plead to additional, “unrelated” charges of breaching national security. That second case dated back to 2012, when the U.S. Department of Justice subpoenaed phone records from the Associated Press in order to track down the source of unauthorized leaks in a story about a foiled terrorist bomb plot. Republicans in Congress accused the Obama administration of leaking the information itself to score political points ahead of the upcoming election.
Now conspiracists had a modus and a motive for what they suspected was a bum rap: Fabricate the most despicable charges imaginable to discredit a federal contractor with top-secret security clearance, and then railroad him with an embarrassing scandal over leaks that were in fact initiated and authorized by the president’s own people.
The noose was tightening around suspects in two investigations, in different parts of the country, at almost exactly the same time.
From a paranoiac’s perspective, the most damning evidence of Sachtleben’s setup was a remarkable string of coincidences in the timelines of the two investigations, partly detailed in separate filings by federal prosecutors.
Beginning in 2010, Sachtleben communicated with a journalist (identified only as “Reporter A” in documents) as an anonymous source on explosives used in terrorist plots. In the wake of numerous national-security leaks—at least five individuals were indicted, arrested, or convicted for such activities in that year alone—the White House vowed to root out and crack down on government officials and contractors sharing classified intelligence with the media. On October 7, 2011, President Obama issued Executive Order 13587, aimed partly at “deterring, detecting, and mitigating insider threats, including the safeguarding of classified information from exploitation, compromise, or other unauthorized disclosure.”
Just two weeks later, firstname.lastname@example.org sent an e-mail to the child-porn target in Illinois offering to trade images. On April 11, 2012, investigators determined that the e-mailer’s IP address was located in Carmel and registered to Donald Sachtleben. They notified the FBI field office in Indianapolis.
On April 30, an explosive device came to the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, recovered from a terrorist plot and designed by Ibrahim al-Asiri, an al-Qaeda—affiliated bomb-maker in Yemen; later reports described it as an “underwear bomb.” That evening, ABC World News ran a story about al-Asiri and the concerns of U.S. officials that terrorists might conceal explosives in body cavities. Less than an hour after the piece aired, “Reporter A” texted Sachtleben fishing for additional details: “Al-Asiri is up to his old tricks. I wonder if ur boys got a hold of a cavity bomb.” To which Sachtleben—who was in Indianapolis and due to travel to Washington, D.C., the next day—replied, “Yikes. Remind me to bring sum purell to the lab.”
On the same day the two began texting, Indianapolis FBI agents, tipped off by the child-porn investigators in Illinois, started monitoring wireless Internet signals in Sachtleben’s neighborhood.
The next morning, on May 1, Sachtleben texted “Reporter A” again as he was leaving Indianapolis for D.C. “Just abt to take off,” he wrote. “Will b curious to c coverage when i land at dulles. Hope that tsa doesn’t get out the rubber gloves and ky.” The morning after that, Sachtleben checked in at the FBI Lab, entered a room in the Explosives Unit where the al-Asiri bomb was being examined, and, according to the Justice Department’s account, called the reporter and disclosed “national defense information that he had gathered that morning, including that the FBI was then engaged in an ongoing, secretive, and sensitive analysis of the bomb.”
Later that day, on May 2, “Reporter A” and a colleague started contacting government officials about the bomb plot, who in turn learned that the journalists had classified information. On May 3, the feds in Indianapolis got a warrant to search for child pornography on Sachtleben’s electronic devices.
On May 7, an AP report about the al-Asiri underwear bomb went out over the wire. Not long afterward, the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., secretly obtained records for more than 20 AP phone lines in an attempt to ferret out leakers in the story.
At this point, the noose was tightening around suspects in two investigations, in different parts of the country, at almost exactly the same time. Authorities claim they just didn’t know that the two perps were actually the same man. On May 8, the day after the AP story, Peter King, then-chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, called for an investigation and later aired his own suspicion that officials within the Obama administration had leaked the material. On May 11, FBI agents in Indianapolis served the search warrant at Sachtleben’s residence, found child pornography on a laptop seized from the back seat of his Suburban, and placed him under arrest.
In Hamlet, the Bard captured the spirit of paranoid conjecture in a single, famous line: “The lady protests too much, methinks.” A conspiracist in the present age might read federal prosecutors’ remarks on the matter of Donald Sachtleben and hear a lady protesting loudly.
In a “Combined Sentencing Memorandum” filed in the U.S. District Court in Indianapolis, the government—perhaps sensitive to speculation that Sachtleben was smacked with trumped-up charges—took great pains to emphasize that the cases originated separately and only converged near the end point of each. “Two criminal investigations—Child Pornography and National Security—were initiated by different investigators and prosecutors six hundred miles apart,” it reads. And after Sachtleben’s arrest, the document continues, “It appeared that the parties were going to resolve the Child Pornography case with a plea agreement, unconnected to any other matter. Subsequently, arising from a completely separate criminal investigation based in Washington, D.C., the Defendant was advised through counsel that he was the target in a National Security investigation.” Not just a separate investigation, mind you—a completely separate investigation.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven DeBrota, who works in the Indianapolis office and handled the child-porn prosecution, gets downright annoyed at the suggestion his case was tied to nailing a national-security leaker. “A narrative emerged—this is convenient, or whatever,” DeBrota says. “It had nothing to do with that. You can write that down. The allegation that, for example, we investigated Donald Sachtleben because he was talking or not talking to somebody about something else is nonsense.”
If Hamlet suggests a paranoid reading of the feds’ intentions, a rationalist like DeBrota might counter with the principle of Occam’s Razor, which holds that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. Far from masterminding some sprawling, coordinated scheme, government officials were merely the beneficiaries of dumb luck.
Shortly after the AP story, the Justice Department assigned the leak case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington. After months of investigation, authorities subpoenaed the AP’s phone records and cross-checked some of the calls against evidence they’d already compiled. They got a “hit” on a number, the one belonging to Sachtleben, and quickly learned that he was already under prosecution. “One evening, I got a call from the lead FBI agent, while I was sitting at my desk, that I needed to come over right away,” says Jonathan Malis, an assistant U.S. attorney in D.C. “It was quite memorable—we got our hit in late February 2013, and once we were able to identify Donald Sachtleben, the investigation took a dramatic turn, and a very focused turn, right to him.”
The AP phone records contained only numbers, dates, times, and call durations. Proving that Sachtleben disclosed sensitive information would require showing what was actually said or typed in those communications—content that investigators would find on a follow-up search of Sachtleben’s electronic devices and media, along with classified documents. Since the authorities in Indianapolis had already seized those as part of the child-porn investigation, the key evidence was, in effect, held in safekeeping until the D.C. folks could get around to figuring out who Sachtleben was. “Had we not executed the child-pornography search warrant,” says Bob Jones, special agent in charge at the FBI field office in Indianapolis, “it would’ve been much more difficult to get him on the national-security leak.”
“In retrospect, it was stunning,” says Malis. “An incredible break.”
“He confirmed details the reporter already had in hand,” says Sachtleben’s wife, Laurie. “And while that was wrong, it did not make Don a ‘big fish’ in national-security terms.”
According to assistant U.S. attorney DeBrota, the confluence of the cases wasn’t even particularly coincidental, let alone conspiratorial. “One or two Internet wack jobs raised that allegation,” he says. “And it’s stupid if you look at the file.”
He points out, for example, that investigators had Sachtleben’s IP address in the crosshairs well before the text exchange that led to the national-security breach. “If you look at the date of the search warrant, and the date of the arrest of Sachtleben—if you look carefully at the dates—you’ll notice that he’s trafficking in child pornography with 12 people around the world months and months before any question about the D.C. investigation.” (Though Sachtleben was talking to “Reporter A” about terrorist bombs as far back as 2010, earlier than the child-porn investigation and the leak that ostensibly got him into hot water.)
It’s also likely that the armchair Internet journalists were not present at Sachtleben’s sentencing hearing last November. He sounded like a deeply troubled man—and not an innocent one.
He told the judge he’d received counseling, “And what I did with that counseling was to face for the first time in my life the addictions that I let myself develop, my compulsive sexual behavior, my abuse of alcohol,” he said. “I also confronted for the first time in my life the post-traumatic stress disorder that I had encountered as a result of my work. I had been denying that for many years, and I had been medicating myself, numbing myself against those effects with my addictive behavior.”
As to the national-security offenses, Sachtleben chalked up his possession of classified documents to carelessness. “I knew the rules,” he said. “I was well aware. I had received the training. I had attended it. I had signed all the forms. And I broke those rules, perhaps out of some misplaced sense of my own convenience or whatever. But, again, that is no excuse, Your Honor. I knew what I was doing, and it was wrong.”
Still, Sachtleben’s explanation for why he shared national-security information with the reporter was strangely vague and unsatisfying. “It was never my intent to directly profit from the disclosures that I made,” he said, “nor was I trying to expose fraud, waste, or abuse of power within the government.” Instead, he said, “I substituted my judgment, my own flawed judgment, for the laws, policies, and ethics that I had been sworn to uphold.” He did not, however, explain what he did hope to accomplish with the disclosures.
For his child-porn crimes, Sachtleben paid $5,000 in restitution to the subject in one of the photos and received a prison sentence of 97 months, along with a consecutive sentence of 43 months on the national-security charges. He is currently in FCI Elkton, a minimum-security correctional facility in Ohio. He did not consent to an interview for this story, so it is impossible to say what his true motives were. But Malis, the prosecutor in D.C., has a guess. He was in “a longstanding relationship with the reporter,” says Malis. “It appeared that Donald Sachtleben wanted to demonstrate his superior knowledge and access to sensitive information.” In other words, vanity made him do it.
Sachtleben’s wife, Laurie, who maintains close contact with him in prison, believes he was caught up in a kind of perfect storm.
“Clearly the Department of Justice wanted to demonstrate that its efforts to find leakers were yielding results,” she wrote in an e-mail to IM. “When they discovered that Don had had contact with the reporter, and that he already was facing charges for child pornography, they had him in a corner. The two sets of charges became so entwined that there was no fighting back.”
Whatever the case, the ordeal, even if it was of his own doing, took a toll on Sachtleben. At the sentencing hearing, he revealed that in August 2013, shortly after federal prosecutors brought the additional national-security charges against him, he agreed to talk to the authorities about his leaks. “So I gave that interview on a Friday,” he said, “and I went home that weekend and made the worst choice of my life.” The choice was to attempt suicide.
Perhaps the most cool-headed assessment of Donald Sachtleben’s case is that a flawed man overtaken by disturbing impulses treated his security clearance too casually, while the federal government, from the top down, was crouched in a zero-tolerance stance on intelligence leaks. In the words of Laurie Sachtleben, “Breaking the law is never right, of course. But with the national-security case, Don broke the wrong law at exactly the wrong time.” He admitted his guilt in open court, and the men who prosecuted him have moved on to other cases.
But a few puzzling details still elude explanation. According to a November 2013 Huffington Post article, Sachtleben’s attorney shared a statement in which the defendant said, “I was neither the sole nor the original source of information to ‘Reporter A’ about the suicide bomb … The information I shared with ‘Reporter A’ merely confirmed what he already believed to be true. Any implication that I was the direct source of a serious leak is an exaggeration.”
Laurie Sachtleben agrees. “I honestly don’t believe that Don was the only or the original source of information,” she wrote. “He confirmed details the reporter already had in hand, and while that was wrong, it did not make Don a ‘big fish’ in national-security terms.”
The AP story did cite “officials,” plural, as sources. On the day it ran, top White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan said in a teleconference with TV commentators that the United States was never in danger, anyway, because a double agent had infiltrated the Yemeni terrorist group. The existence of the double agent was all over the news the next day. As it turned out, that piece of information was still classified—and leaking it was arguably more damaging than Sachtleben’s transgression. The agent’s cover was blown, and the operation was shut down. But neither Brennan nor any other leakers tied to the underwear-bomb story have been prosecuted; instead, Brennan was promoted to CIA director.
Attempts to find a credible source who shared some of the conspiracists’ skepticism yielded only one individual: a former reporter at a major newspaper who works as a free-press activist. He was familiar with the Sachtleben case and suggested that the real target of the government’s ire was not Sachtleben, but the AP. Scrutinizing its phone records and taking down Sachtleben, he surmised, were meant to send a message to other would-be leakers: Talk to the AP, and this could happen to you.
But the source wanted to remain anonymous, he said, because he didn’t want to jeopardize other journalists close to him. And he refused to speak by calling directly. After an exchange of e-mails, he insisted on calling the front desk and having the receptionist transfer him, which, he said, would make it more difficult for “them” to monitor the conversation.
Sounds crazy. Then again, the AP has reported having difficulty getting sources in the government to talk since the Sachtleben leak probe began to unfold. Whether the two Sachtleben investigations were secretly coordinated, or just coincidental, one thing is sure: The chilling effect has been the same either way.
Illustration by Lincoln Agnew
This article appeared in the July 2014 issue.