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Former CIA Officer Jeffrey Sterling Sentenced to Prison for Leaking to Journalist

Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for leaking information to a journalist. It was the longest sentence issued by a federal court during President Barack Obama’s administration.

During a trial in January, the government convinced a jury, with largely circumstantial evidence, that Sterling leaked information about a top secret CIA operation in Iran called “Operation Merlin” to New York Times reporter James Risen, who published details on the operation in a chapter of his book, State of War. “Operation Merlin” involved the passage of flawed nuclear blueprints to Iran in order to get them to work on building a nuclear weapon that would never function.

He was convicted of violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses. The government had argued a sentence ranging from 19.5 to 24 years in prison would be reasonable.

Judge Leonie Brinkema, according to Times reporter Matt Apuzzo, said Sterling had “jeopardized the safety of a CIA informant.” And, “Of all the types of secrets kept by American intelligence officers, she said, ‘This is the most critical secret.’”

“If you knowingly reveal these secrets, there’s going to be a price to be paid,” Brinkema added. Sterling had to be punished in order to send a message to other officials, who might consider revealing these kinds of secrets.

Still, Brinkema did not issue a sentence that advocates for Sterling had feared might be issued against him.

“This is the least worst outcome,” Jesselyn Radack, director of the Government Accountability Project’s National Security and Human Rights division, declared. “I expected it to be worse given the huge amount of time that the government was requesting. That said, in my opinion, any jail time is excessive in light of the sweetheart plea deal that [David] Petraeus received for leaking classified information to his mistress.”

Sterling’s defense had argued [PDF] that the court could not “turn a blind eye to the positions the government has taken in similar cases.”

The government agreed to sentence Petraeus to two years of probation and a fine of $40,000 (which the judge hearing the case increased to $100,000). It was lenient considering the fact that Petraeus leaked “Black Books” containing the names of covert officers, war strategy notes, discussions from high level National Security Council meetings and notes from his meetings with President Barack Obama. He also lied to the FBI but was not charged with perjury or obstruction of justice. And the government allowed him to plead guilty to a misdemeanor violation instead of a violation of the Espionage Act.

“Sterling should not receive a different form of justice than General Petraeus,” Edward MacMahon Jr. suggested.

The defense noted that jurors had been wrong to convict Sterling, but they added the judge got it right by sentencing him to only three and a half years.

“For his own vindictive purposes, Jeffrey Sterling carelessly disclosed extremely valuable, highly classified information that he had taken an oath to keep secret,” said US Attorney Dana J. Boente of the Eastern District of Virginia stated. “His attempt to leverage national security information for his own malicious reasons brought him to this sentence today.”

Sterling, an African American, was a case officer assigned to “Operation Merlin.” He left the CIA in 2002 and brought a claim against the CIA alleging racial discrimination. He appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court in 2005. However, the government successfully had the case thrown out by invoking the “state secrets” privilege.

Throughout the case, the government has alleged that Sterling was motivated to leak classified information because he sought revenge against the government after his discrimination lawsuit was dismissed. But the government never proved this allegation in court.

Very little evidence of communications between Risen and Sterling were presented in court. No emails presented showed the two had ever had communications about classified information. Sterling denies disclosing any information to Risen.

Sterling did meet with two Senate Intelligence Committee staffers in March 2003, where he talked to them about “Operation Merlin.” This was obviously an effort to go through proper channels. So, it is possible that he blew the whistle to Risen because he had genuine concerns about the CIA operation but all the government did was put enough circumstantial evidence forward to insinuate that Sterling committed crimes. That was enough to persuade a jury.

The government made a lot of rather hyperbolic claims about the damage done to the government’s ability to stop Iran’s “nuclear weapons program.”

“The reality is that the United States is now in the midst of negotiations with the Iranians about the issue of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. No evidence was presented that the disclosures alleged in this case aided the Iranians in any way,” MacMahon argued.

There is much the government alleged, which Brinkema did not choose to incorporate into her statements when she presented the verdict. She did not suggest that Sterling had made it impossible for the government to counter Iran’s “nuclear weapons program” (which does not exist and, in fact, there is scant evidence the Iranians have had such a program in recent years).

Finally, Sterling’s case is but another episode in the Obama’s crackdown on leaks, which seems to be mostly directed at lower-level government employees or officers. CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou recently finished serving two years in prison. Stephen Kim, a former State Department employee, is currently in jail for leaking to a Fox News reporter. NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake narrowly avoided going to prison after the government’s leak case collapsed right before he was scheduled for trial.

On the other hand, people like CIA director John Brennan, former Pentagon chief Leon Panetta, and retired General James “Hoss” Cartwright, who have each been implicated in leaks, have not been prosecuted. In fact, in the case of Panetta, officials were all too willing to engage in a coverup so that he would not be held accountable for his role in leaking sensitive information to producers of Zero Dark Thirty.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."


  1. ThingsComeUndone
    May 11, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    “Judge Leonie Brinkema, according to Times reporter Matt Apuzzo, said Sterling had “jeopardized the safety of a CIA informant.” And, “Of all the types of secrets kept by American intelligence officers, she said, ‘This is the most critical secret.’””

    Valerie Palme case how many CIA informants were jeopardised giving information about actual nuclear plants, missiles and nuclear bombs? and not imaginary ones? Scooter Libby served how much time? “On June 5, 2007, the presiding trial judge, Reggie B. Walton, sentenced Libby to 30 months in federal prison, a fine of $250,000, and two years of supervised release, including 400 hours of community service,[14][15][16][17] and then ordered Libby to begin his sentence immediately.[18] On July 2, 2007, when Libby’s appeal of Walton’s order failed, President Bush commuted Libby’s 30-month prison sentence,”

  2. ThingsComeUndone
    May 11, 2015 at 4:24 pm

    “RICHMOND, Va. — Former vice presidential adviser I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby is among more than 1,000 felons whose voting rights were restored in the past year by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell” “In Virginia, only the governor can restore felons’ civil rights. McDonnell has streamlined the process and, consequently, has restored the rights of more than 4,600 felons – ” If we could get their names and subsequent voting records any bet they all vote GOP?

  3. ThingsComeUndone
    May 11, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    Iran would not run these plans to build a nuclear bomb past India, Pakistan both countries they sell oil too, North Korea, Russian, Chinese all countries with nuclear bombs never mind their own scientists?

    Iran has wanted a nuclear reactor since the 1970’s. I am sure they had scientists studying nuclear physics at the time and after relations broke with America sent students to Russia, India, Pakistan, etc to learn nuclear everything. I guess what I am asking is was this Cartoon Logic plan working ? Or did the plan fail and was Jeffrey Sterling charged with revealing to the public a CIA plan that failed and made the CIA look like fools?

  4. ThingsComeUndone
    May 11, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    “the CIA chose a defected Russian nuclear scientist to provide deliberately flawed nuclear warhead blueprints to Iranian officials in February 2000.” “Operation Merlin backfired when the CIA’s Russian contact/messenger noticed flaws in the schematics and told the Iranian nuclear scientists.[5] Instead, the book alleges, Operation Merlin may have accelerated Iran’s nuclear program by providing useful information, once the flaws were identified, and the plans compared with other sources, such as those presumed to have been provided to the Iranians by A. Q. Khan.[5]” Umm if I understand the Cartoon Logic right the guy on the CIA’s payroll to give Iran nuclear bomb plans noticed the plans were flawed and told Iran….but we were paying the guy $5,000 a month plus travel expenses. Did our pawn not know the plans were fake or were we double crossed by our double agent either way the wiki article is to nice they say we “may have accelerated Iran’s nuclear program” NO we gave them nuclear bomb plans and we ( through our pawn/double agent) told them there were mistakes in the plans. Our plan rested on there being NO other scientists foreign or Iranian who could notice the mistakes in the plans. Nobody who could do the math calculations bolt D shears at X amount of pressure, wire Z holds X amount of current I could go on and on. Nobody in the CIA is an engineer math nerds live to fact check everything in the 70’s, 80’s? we had a math program that could model how much a steel beam on a sky building would bend if a quarter was placed on it. I’m sure Iran had every part run through mathamatical models to see if they would perform as advertised before they paid a dime for the plans. The CIA needs to hire a more diverse group of people with diverse expertise nobody in the CIA thought to run this plan past a nuclear Scientist or Engineer? I miss the bold function don’t like capitalizing everything.

  5. Bobster33
    May 11, 2015 at 5:41 pm

    Iran has had a nuclear reactor since 1950’s as Ike gave them the plans. The biggest difference between uranium power and uranium bombs are the purity (3-5% vs. >95%).

    Personally I think that the government tried to track the nuclear program by giving information out that the CIA could easily trace. The CIA could then manipulate the data into convincing the next head of the MIC to go to war against Iran.

    Sterling was a scapegoat. I blame the jury for being so stupid so as to believe that the largest intelligence agencies would have no direct evidence as to a crime.

  6. Burnerjack
    May 11, 2015 at 6:54 pm

    Nevertheless, he took an oath. Then violated it. End.

  7. Oinkbuster
    May 11, 2015 at 7:05 pm

    Fuck that, give David Petraeus 3.5 fucking years. Poor guy.

  8. kiljoy616
    May 11, 2015 at 7:22 pm

    He took an oath to protect the USA from domestic corruption which is all this is. The USA can’t wait to go to war with someone else. If iran does not want to become Iraq it better find a way to do an NK fast. Because no one should take serious anything the USA says any more when it comes to attacking anyone without nukes.

  9. Burnerjack
    May 11, 2015 at 7:28 pm

    Domestic corruption is the domain of the FBI. He took an oath not to divulge State secrets as well as organization assets and operations. Once again, he violated is oath, his word. A treasonous act.

  10. bsbafflesbrains
    May 11, 2015 at 9:21 pm

    And Petraeus?

  11. Patriarch
    May 12, 2015 at 8:02 am

    Domestic corruption execution & entrapment IS THE DOMAIN OF THE FBI.

  12. Patriarch
    May 12, 2015 at 8:04 am

    Who is going to restore the governor’s voting rights..certainly not McCauliffe?

  13. Patriarch
    May 12, 2015 at 8:08 am

    It was Richard Armitage, not Libby. Libby was a scapegoat, just like Oswald, Tsarnaev & most scandals created in dc’s parallel universe.

  14. Burnerjack
    May 12, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    As stated previously. The domain of the FBI.
    As far as General Patreaus goes, If He did divulge State secrets to his lover, he should have been prosecuted as such. Apparently he met his own Mata Hari.
    I know he resigned over the affair but what if any secrets did he divulge. I recall he was quite critical of the Commander in Chief. While damning and professional suicide, I don’t know that that is a crime.

  15. Burnerjack
    May 12, 2015 at 6:25 pm

    No argument here. I concur.