A former senior National Security Agency official is facing a slew of charges over the leaking of classified information about the super secret intelligence agency to a newspaper reporter.

Thomas Drake, 52, of Glenwood, Maryland, was charged in a 10-count indictment handed down by a federal grand jury in Maryland, the Justice Department said in a statement Thursday.

Drake, a high-ranking employee at the NSA between 2001 and 2008, is accused of illegally retaining classified information, obstructing justice and making false statements.

Drake is alleged to have provided information to a newspaper reporter for a series of articles published between February 2006 and November 2007.

The indictment did not identify the reporter, described only as "Reporter A," or the "national newspaper" but various reports identified her as Siobhan Gorman of The Baltimore Sun.

Gorman now works for The Wall Street Journal. The Baltimore Sun did not respond to a request for comment from AFP.

The indictment also did not identify the subject of the stories, but said they were "articles about the NSA and its intelligence activities, including SIGINT programs."

NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, where Drake worked, is the main facility for SIGINT, or Signals Intelligence programs, which involve capturing and processing foreign communications for intelligence purposes.

Drake "served as a source for many of these newspaper articles, including articles that contained SIGINT information," the indictment said.

Gorman wrote a number of articles about the NSA during the time period cited in the indictment, including stories about problems with classified information collection and analysis programs known as "Turbulence" and "Trailblazer."

According to the indictment, Drake left Fort Meade in 2006 to work at the National Defense University in Washington but remained an NSA employee.

His security clearance was suspended in November 2007 and he resigned from the NSA in April 2008.

Using Hushmail, a secure email service, Drake allegedly exchanged hundreds of emails with "Reporter A" and they met on six occasions in the Washington area, according to the indictment.

"This defendant used a secret, non-government email account to transmit classified and unclassified information that he was not authorized to possess or disclose," assistant attorney general Lanny Breuer said in a statement.

"He also later allegedly shredded documents and lied about his conduct to federal agents in order to obstruct their investigation," Breuer said.

"Our national security demands that the sort of conduct alleged here -- violating the government's trust by illegally retaining and disclosing classified information -- be prosecuted and prosecuted vigorously."

Drake faces five charges of illegally retaining classified documents, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

He faces one charge of obstruction of justice, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, and four charges of making false statements, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told AFP the prosecution of a government leaker, while rare, is "not unheard of."

"It's not a shock," Dalglish said. "They've always had the ability to charge people with violating national security laws when they leak to a reporter. They just don't typically do it very often."

She said the case is "designed to have an impact on leakers."

"It's going to impact people sharing information with reporters," she said.