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.