Baltimore jurors might need secret decoders

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Federal prosecutors in Baltimore want to invoke the “silent witness rule” in next month’s former National Security Agency employee Thomas Drake.

Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of “the silent witness rule.” According to California attorney Jonathan Lamb, who published an article on the obscure rule in 2008, it’s only been invoked “three or four times in the last 30 years.” One of them was in 2005, during the trial of Ahmed Abu Ali, an al Qaeda operative who was convicted of trying to assassinate President Bush.

Drake has been charged in a 10-count indictment of illegally retaining classified documents in his Maryland home without authorization, obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI for allegedly classified leaking information to a Siobhan Gorman, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who currently works for the Wall Street Journal. Gorman won a Sigma Delta Chi award for her articles in 2006 and 2007 about serious problems with NSA’s multi-million computer systems.

If the use of secret codes are approved by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Bennett, jurors in the Drake trial will need special decoders to decipher what some of the 15 witnesses expected to testify are talking about. However, the press and public following the trial won’t have a clue.

Drake’s attorneys argue that the former senior executive is not a traitor, but a whistleblower who was only trying to expose waste, fraud and abuse at the top-secret intelligence agency, located at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County. He faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted.

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