NORFOLK---On paper, the charges read like an intricate espionage case - top-secret documents containing information about military movements and bomb-making methods, smuggled off Navy computers, potentially putting national security and U.S. forces in harm's way.
But explosive ordnance disposal technician Chief Petty Officer Lyle White is no Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden, defense lawyer Grover Baxley told a military judge Wednesday, referring to two high-profile cases involving major leaks of classified material.
White is a combat veteran and a Bronze Star recipient with more than 20 years of service who exercised bad judgment when he took classified documents home. It was an act of laziness, Baxley said, "with no criminal intent, no nefariousness."
White pleaded guilty under a pretrial agreement Wednesday to violating three military regulations: improperly storing classified documents on a non-secure site - namely an external hard drive found at his Virginia Beach home; maintaining possession of the documents; and deliberately removing them from his Navy office without the authority to do so.
He told the court that he understood the regulations and knew he wasn't supposed to take the documents. But he said they were useful for training purposes, so he kept them for his own reference, and didn't share them with anyone.
He now realizes how the information they contained - which included troop movements and bomb analyses - could have exposed U.S. military methodology and put service members' lives in danger, he said.
"By mishandling classified information, I set a horrible example for the people that were looking for guidance, as well as letting my superior officers down," he said in a statement that he read aloud. "My misconduct and its consequences haunts me every day."
White said exchanges of documents with fellow explosive-ordnance disposal sailors started while they were deployed in Iraq in 2007-08. The sailors would share information and lessons learned.
By the end of 2009 - after he'd deployed to Iraq again - he'd collected hundreds of files. That December, he consolidated most of them onto a single hard drive, which he took home.
Four months later, Navy criminal investigators raided his home and found the hard drive in a duffel bag, as well as electronic copies of two other classified documents. The charges related to 25 classified files.
White apologized, saying he hurt the Navy, his EOD unit, his friends, his co-workers and his family. He said he wished he could take his actions back but that he has paid dearly for the mistakes, being transferred from the EOD community into a supply unit.
"Because of that, my military career, character, and reputation have suffered beyond any disciplinary action taken against me," he said.
Baxley said his client will forever have a federal espionage conviction on his record. That is punishment enough, he told the judge.
The prosecution argued that White let his unit and his office down. He was entrusted with a leadership role and a top-secret clearance.
He violated those trusts, Marine Corps Capt. Keaton Harrell told the court. "In all of them, he's failed."
"Some acts of laziness or poor judgment can have drastic consequences," Harrell said. "Regardless of whether or not he did this on purpose, by wrongfully taking these documents home and storing them... so carelessly, who knows what could have happened?"
Harrell pointed out that, in the wrong hands, the documents could have endangered other explosive ordnance technicians He urged the judge, Capt. Colleen Glaser-Allen, to strip White of his rank as chief petty officer.
Glaser-Allen did not reduce White's rank. She sentenced him to 60 days confinement at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek and fined him $10,000. But under the terms of the pretrial agreement, White will not have to pay the fine or be confined.
Wednesday was Glaser-Allen's final day on the bench at Norfolk Naval Station before she moves to a new position in Japan. After she adjourned the court, she addressed White off the record:
"I nearly took the anchors," she told him, referring to the hardware that chief petty officers wear. The only reason she didn't was because he had proved himself in combat again and again, she said.
"I really hope it was just a matter of bad judgment," she said. "I hope it was an isolated incident."
Baxley said White waited four years for the case to come to court and is now preparing to retire. He believes that the matter should have been handled administratively, not criminally, but the attorney welcomed Wednesday's outcome.
"The highly publicized cases of Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and others have created an understandably increased sensitivity to cases involving the mishandling of classified information," he said. "I believe that had an impact in this case."