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Leak inquiries reveal how wide a net US has cast

WASHINGTON — Even before the FBI conducted 550 interviews of officials and seized the phone records of Associated Press reporters in a leak investigation connected to a 2012 article about a Yemen bomb plot, agents had sought the reporters’ sources for two other articles about terrorism.

In a separate case last year, FBI agents asked the White House, the Defense Department, and intelligence agencies for phone and e-mail logs showing exchanges with a New York Times reporter writing about computer attacks on Iran. Agents grilled officials about their contacts with him, two people familiar with the investigation said.

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And agents tracing the leak of a highly classified CIA report on North Korea to a Fox News reporter pulled electronic archives showing which officials had gained access to the report and had contact with the reporter on the day of the leak.

They studied one official’s entrances and exits from the State Department, obtained his Yahoo e-mail information, and even searched his hard drive for deleted files, documents unsealed this month showed.

The emerging details of these and other cases show how broadly the Obama administration has pursued its investigations into disclosures of government secrets, querying hundreds of officials across the federal government and even some of their foreign counterparts.

The result has been an unprecedented six prosecutions and many more inquiries using aggressive legal and technical tactics. A vast majority of those questioned were cleared of any leaking.

On Thursday, President Obama ordered a review of the Justice Department’s procedures for leak investigations involving reporters, saying he was concerned that such inquiries chilled journalists’ ability to hold the government accountable. Yet he made no apology for the scrutiny of the many officials whose records were searched or who had been questioned by the FBI.

“He makes the case that we have 18-year-olds out fighting wars and acting like adults, and we have senior administration officials quoted in stories acting like children,” said Tommy Vietor, a former National Security Council spokesman.

Obama and top administration officials say that some of the leaks have endangered Americans, disrupted intelligence operations, and strained alliances with other countries.

Some officials are now declining to take calls from certain reporters, concerned that any contact may lead to investigation. Some complain of being taken from their offices to endure uncomfortable questioning. And the government officials typically must pay for lawyers themselves, unlike re­porters for large news organizations whose companies provide legal representation.

“For every reporter that is dealing with this, there are hundreds of national security officials who feel under siege — without benefit of a corporate legal department or a media megaphone for support,” a former Obama administration official said. “There are lots of people in the government spending lots of money on legal fees.”

When an agency spots classified information in the news media, officials file what is called a “Crimes Report” with the Department of Justice, answering 11 standard questions about the leak, including the effect of the disclosure “on the national defense.”

FBI agents then set out to find the leaker, a process that has become far easier in recent years as e-mail and other electronic records have proliferated.

Officials who have been questioned in the current investigations are reluctant to describe their experience. But the account of William E. Binney, who spent more than 30 years at the National Security Agency, shows what can happen.

Binney, 69, who retired from the NSA in 2001, was one of several people investigated as part of an inquiry into a 2005 Times article on the spy agency’s warrantless wiretapping program.

He was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the investigation derailed his career and changed his life. Starting in March 2007, Binney said, he was interviewed by the FBI three times and felt he had cooperated fully.

One morning in July 2007, however, a dozen agents appeared at his house in Severn, Md. One of them ran upstairs and entered the bathroom where Binney was toweling off after a shower, pointing a gun at him.

Agents carried away a desktop computer, disks, and personal and business records. Last year, he and three former NSA colleagues went to federal court to get the confiscated items back; he is still waiting for some of them.

Binney spent more than $7,000 on legal fees. But far more devastating, he said, was the NSA’s decision to strip him of his security clearance, forcing him to close the business he ran with former colleagues, costing him an annual income of about $300,000.

“After a raid like that, you’re always sitting here wondering if they’re coming back,” Binney said. “This did not feel like the America we grew up in.”

One of the most striking recent revelations about the administration’s scrutiny of journalists concerns James Rosen of Fox News, whose e-mail records were seized as part of a leak investigation of classified information about North Korea in 2009.

The warrant seeking a judge’s permission to obtain Rosen’s records describes him “at the very least, either as an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator.”

That description could make him vulnerable to indictment under the Espionage Act. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. signed off on the warrant request, the Justice Department acknowledged Friday.

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