Former CIA Director John M. Deutch is negotiating with the Justice Department over the possibility that he might plead guilty to a misdemeanor for keeping classified information on his home computers, sources familiar with the talks said Thursday.
Atty. Gen. Janet Reno had wanted to resolve the high-profile case before she left office Thursday, but her interim successor, Eric H. Holder Jr., has assumed responsibility for overseeing its resolution, the sources said.
Although Deutch has been reluctant to agree to plead guilty, a one-count misdemeanor plea would enable him to avoid jail time and eliminate the threat of a criminal indictment on felony charges.
Uncertainty over former Sen. John Ashcroft's nomination as attorney general has increased pressure on Deutch to cut a deal, since it is not clear whether a new attorney general would decide to prosecute him on more serious felony charges for mishandling classified information, the sources said.
Deutch's lawyer, Terrence O'Donnell of Williams & Connolly, did not return phone calls seeking comment Thursday night.
The Justice Department initially declined to prosecute Deutch in April 1999 after CIA security officials discovered he had written and stored hundreds of highly classified intelligence reports on unsecured home computers linked to the Internet. Deutch's conduct--for which he later publicly apologized--was discovered as he was leaving the CIA in December 1996 after 1 1/2 years in office.
Reno asked prosecutor Paul E. Coffey to take a second look at the case after a leaked CIA inspector general's report ignited controversy on Capitol Hill early last year. Coffey concluded that criminal charges should be filed against Deutch, who returned to his professor's post at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
When Coffey began his review, Justice Department officials said they were worried about the appearance of a double standard after filing a 59-count felony indictment against former Los Alamos physicist Wen Ho Lee for downloading classified nuclear weapon data.
Authorities identified Lee as an espionage suspect and held him in pretrial solitary confinement for nine months. But the Taiwanese-born scientist ultimately pleaded guilty in September to a felony count for mishandling classified information.