A former CIA official who publicly confirmed the waterboarding of top al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah was charged on Monday with leaking classified information to journalists, including the identities of two CIA officers.
John Kiriakou, who served with the CIA between 1990 and 2004, was charged with violating a law that makes it illegal to disclose the identity of a covert officer, leaking classified information and lying to a CIA publications review board, the department said.
He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted on all charges.
"Safeguarding classified information, including the identities of CIA officers involved in sensitive operations, is critical to keeping our intelligence officers safe and protecting our national security," attorney general Eric Holder said.
"Today's charges reinforce the justice department's commitment to hold accountable anyone who would violate the solemn duty not to disclose such sensitive information," he said in a statement.
Kiriakou first came to public attention in an interview with ABC News in December 2007 in which he became the first US official to describe Abu Zubaydah's waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning widely viewed as torture.
He acknowledged later in his memoir, however, that he was not present when the interrogation took place.
CIA director David Petraeus said the spy agency had supported the investigation, and reminded CIA employees of their oath to safeguard classified information.
"Given the sensitive nature of many of our agency's operations and the risks we ask our employees to take, the illegal passage of secrets is an abuse of trust that may put lives in jeopardy," he said.
Republican New York congressman Peter King, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said "if the charges filed against Kiriakou are indeed true, then he is guilty of absolutely despicable crimes.
"This disclosure clearly placed these officers and their families at great risk of harm," King added. "The American people deserve to know exactly who has willingly endangered the lives of American intelligence officers."
The justice department said the charges stem from an investigation into classified information, including photographs of a CIA official, that found its way into classified filings by defense lawyers representing detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The breach was allegedly traced to a journalist who had learned of the CIA officer's identity and his role in the Abu Zubaydah case from Kiriakou, and passed the information on to a Guantanamo defense counsel.
The justice department also said Kiriakou was the source of information in a New York Times story in June 2008 that referenced the CIA officer's role in the Abu Zubaydah case.
The complaint alleges that Kiriakou also disclosed the identity of a covert CIA officer in a pair of emails to a journalist in July and August 2008, identifying him as a "team leader" of a certain operation.
The CIA filed a crimes report after discovering photographs of the first CIA official in a classified filing by defense counsel of certain Guantanamo detainees, the government's complaint said.
The photos apparently were among 32 pages of photos that defense counsel showed to clients to see if they could pick out pictures of contractors or government officials who they recognize from their interrogations.
Patrick Fitzgerald, the US attorney for the northern district of Illinois, was appointed to supervise a federal investigation into the breach.
"No law or military commission order expressly prohibited defense counsel from providing their clients with these photo spreads," it said.
Kiriakou also was alleged to have lied to a CIA review board in the course of seeking permission for publication of a book about his experiences called "The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA's War on Terror."