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Sailor who took pictures of submarine interiors to serve one year in prison

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Bridgeport — A federal judge on Friday sentenced a former Groton sailor, who illegally took pictures while serving on a nuclear submarine, to one year in prison.

"We need to make sure that every service person understands the consequence of playing fast and loose with important information," Judge Stefan R. Underhill said in sentencing Petty Officer 1st Class Kristian Saucier, 29, who was a machinist's mate aboard the USS Alexandria, a Los Angeles-class attack submarine, from September 2007 to March 2012.

Machinist's mates handle the mechanical operations for the nuclear propulsion plant aboard a submarine.

The Alexandria was based in Groton until November 2015, when its homeport shifted to San Diego, Calif.

Underhill said that he would recommend to the Bureau of Prisons that Saucier be placed in a low-security prison and in a camp as close as possible to his family.

He also sentenced Saucier to three years of supervised release, the first six months of which will be spent under home confinement with electronic monitoring, and to perform 100 hours of community service.

Saucier, of Arlington, Vt., pleaded guilty in May to one count of unauthorized retention of national defense information, a felony charge.

He took a plea deal at the May court proceeding that lists sentencing guidelines for the case as 63 to 78 months in prison. He faced a maximum of 10 years in prison.

Underhill emphasized several times that federal sentencing guidelines were not helpful in the context of Saucier's case and that it was not an easy case to adjudicate.

"This is a sad case. It's sad to have someone who for a period of time was ably serving this country to do, Mr. Saucier, what you did," Underhill said. "Nobody can be happy that you're here today."

During the sentencing, Underhill dismissed the second count, obstruction of justice, on which Saucier was indicted in July 2015.

Saucier used his cellphone camera to take pictures of classified spaces, instruments and equipment on at least three occasions in 2009, documenting the major technical components of the submarine’s propulsion system, according to court documents and statements made in court.

The government was seeking 63 months prison time, followed by three years of supervised release in the case.

Saucier's lawyer Derrick Hogan argued in a recent filing that his client should receive probation given the outcome of similar cases, such as the investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's handling of classified information.

Hogan argued Friday that the fact that Saucier had no prior convictions, received "numerous" achievements while in the Navy and has taken responsibility for his actions as reasons he should get a lesser sentence.

Hogan also pointed to an administrative separation board hearing in process, which he said likely will result in Saucier receiving an other than honorable discharge from the Navy.

That discharge could impact veteran benefits to which he otherwise would have been entitled.

Saucier had a secret clearance at the time that the prosecution alleges he took 12 photos inside the Alexandria's engine room. Redacted photos of the originals Saucier took were presented in court Friday.

The plea deal he entered into with the government stipulates that he admits to taking six photographs, all of which are classified as "confidential/restricted," the lowest of the three classification levels, which pertains to information that is "reasonably assumed" could cause damage to national security.

The "secret" classification pertains to information that is reasonably assumed could cause "serious damage" to national security and "top secret" to information that is reasonably assumed could cause "exceptionally grave damage."

Several people, including family members and former crew members on the Alexandria, wrote letters on behalf of Saucier. The letters referenced his strong work ethic and the achievements he had earned while serving.

His division officer from 2008 to 2009, Stephen N. Gaetke, a former Navy lieutenant, wrote that Saucier was "the kind of worker you never had to worry about."

"I cannot begin to put into words the mental isolation, unrelenting work hours, and sacrifices submariners make as part of their proud service to their country. Kris was dedicated to that commitment and unrelenting in his patriotism. ... His judgment was certainly flawed, but his character and patriotism remain uncompromised and refulgent," Gaetke said.

The investigation into Saucier started in March 2012, when his cellphone was found at a waste transfer station in Hampton, Conn.

After Saucier was interviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in July 2012, he destroyed a laptop computer, a personal camera and the camera's memory card, according to the government.

Underhill said that it was "too bad" that Saucier "destroyed the ability to refute the suspicions that have been directed at you."

The government speculated that Saucier had either been directed by a foreign agent to take the photographs or that he could've distributed them to foreign adversaries of the U.S.

Underhill said he was not convinced of that and if Saucier had done that, he would've said "throw away the key or line you up."

Hogan argued that Saucier's motive for taking the photos, although wrong and unlawful, was to save them as keepsakes to show his future children, and that he had no intent to distribute them. 

The prosecution emphasized that Saucier knew that what he was doing was illegal, given the efforts taken by the Navy to indoctrinate sailors and protect classified information.

Underhill said that he "accepts that" but that he hopes the Navy, if it isn't already doing so, takes measures to prevent the use of cellphones and other devices aboard submarines in order "to remove that temptation."

Chief Darryl I. Wood, a spokesman for the Navy's Atlantic submarine force, said by email that the Navy "does not keep outdated/revised instruction on file," and that current personal electronic device policy "is in line with U.S. Navy cybersecurity requirements."

Saucier, who is released on bond, was ordered to report to prison on Oct. 12.

j.bergman@theday.com

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