WASHINGTON — By the time Terry J. Albury arrived in Minneapolis in 2012, about 11 years after he went to work for the F.B.I., he had grown increasingly convinced that agents were abusing their powers and discriminating against racial and religious minorities as they hunted for potential terrorists.
The son of an Ethiopian political refugee, Mr. Albury was the only African-American field agent assigned to a counterterrorism squad that scrutinized Minnesota’s Somali-American community. There, according to his lawyer, he became disillusioned about “widespread racist and xenophobic sentiments” in the bureau and “discriminatory practices and policies he observed and implemented.”
In 2016, Mr. Albury began photographing secret documents that described F.B.I. powers to recruit potential informants and identify potential extremists. On Thursday, he was sentenced to four years in prison after pleading guilty last year to unauthorized disclosures of national security secrets for sending several of the documents to The Intercept, which published the files with a series titled “The F.B.I.’s Secret Rules.”
Before Judge Wilhelmina M. Wright announced the sentence, Mr. Albury spoke haltingly in her courtroom in downtown St. Paul, pausing to wipe his face and breathe deeply. He apologized to his former F.B.I. colleagues and said he had been motivated to act by perceived injustices. In hindsight, he said, he wished he had voiced his concerns through official channels and not the news media.
“I truly wanted to make a difference and never intended to put anyone in danger,” Mr. Albury said.
The sentencing — which also included three years of supervised release after Mr. Albury gets out of prison — brought to a close the second leak case charged under the Espionage Act during the Trump administration after Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s vow last year to crack down on unauthorized disclosures of classified information.
On Thursday, Mr. Sessions was triumphant, saying in a statement that the department was “conducting perhaps the most aggressive campaign against leaks” in its history.
“Today’s sentence should be a warning to every would-be leaker in the federal government that if they disclose classified information, they will pay a high price,” he said.
The first leak case came to a close in August when Reality Winner, a former National Security Agency contractor, was sentenced to more than five years in prison after she pleaded guilty to leaking a classified document about Russian efforts to hack state elections systems. Like Mr. Albury, Ms. Winter had sent her document to The Intercept.
Betsy Reed, the editor in chief of The Intercept, which published a lengthy profile of Mr. Albury on Thursday, said in an email that it was getting easier for the government to hunt down journalists’ sources using surveillance and internal monitoring systems. She warned of a growing chill for investigative journalism.
“Like former N.S.A. contractor Reality Winner, who also faced prosecution under the Espionage Act, Terry Albury was a whistle-blower motivated by conscience who was targeted not because he harmed national security but because authorities found his disclosures inconvenient or embarrassing,” she said.
But the Justice Department rejected the portrayal of Mr. Albury as a whistle-blower, saying he had done nothing internally to raise any concerns about or try to change F.B.I. policies. When F.B.I. agents raided his house last year, they found digital copies of several dozen additional classified files, court documents show.
Judge Wright, who is black and was appointed by former President Barack Obama, criticized Mr. Albury at length after announcing the sentence. She said she understood his concerns about racism, but called his actions “a fool’s errand” that harmed national security.
“You perceived your actions to be honorable,” Judge Wright said as Mr. Albury stood silently in the center of the courtroom, flanked by his lawyers. “But it is a misguided understanding of honor. It put our country at risk.”
Mr. Albury’s sentencing came amid a flurry of unconnected leak-related investigation developments. On Monday, a former Senate Intelligence Committee aide, James A. Wolfe, pleaded guilty to lying about his contacts with a reporter during an F.B.I. investigation into leaks of classified information.
And on Wednesday, the Justice Department announced that it had arrested a Treasury Department official, Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, and charged her with illegally showing a journalist secret reports about suspicious wire transfers by Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, and others linked to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The Trump Justice Department’s aggressive use of criminal charges to pursue officials suspected of making unauthorized disclosures to the public is a continuation of a practice that developed during the Bush administration and accelerated under the Obama administration.
For most of American history, leak suspects were disciplined but not charged. But the electronic trails left by modern communications have made it increasingly easy to determine which officials both had access to the secrets and were in contact with the reporters who wrote about them, even as the post-Sept. 11 era has generated far more government secrets about disputed national-security policies.
Against that backdrop, midway through the Bush administration, the Justice Department ramped up the use of prosecutorial powers against leak suspects. That approach continued under the Obama administration, which eventually oversaw more criminal cases than all previous presidents combined.
The Trump administration’s leak case tally is also mounting, although there is some ambiguity around what cases to include in counting them. In addition to Ms. Winner and Mr. Albury, it has charged Joshua A. Schulte, a former C.I.A. software engineer, under the Espionage Act for allegedly disclosing an archive of documents detailing the agency’s hacking operations to WikiLeaks.
Ms. Edwards, by contrast, was charged under a different statute that forbids the unauthorized disclosure of confidential reports about suspicious financial activities. And while Mr. Wolfe’s false-statements case came in the context of a leak investigation, but he was not charged with leaking.
In a court filing, Mr. Albury’s lawyer, Joshua Dratel, spotlighted a disparity in how suspects in leak-related cases have been treated, saying that a “double standard” let higher-ranking officials off the hook while punishing lower-ranking ones. He stressed that Mr. Albury was trying to be a whistle-blower, not put the country in danger.
But prosecutors accused him of abusing his position of trust and a betrayal that “put at risk national security.”