Lawyers for Jeffrey Sterling, convicted earlier this year of leaking classified information to New York Times reporter James Risen, urged today that Sterling “not receive a different form of justice” than David Petraeus, the former general and CIA director who has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for leaking classified information to his biographer.

While Petraeus will not go to jail — yesterday a judge sentenced him to two years probation and a $100,000 fine — prosecutors have asked for a “severe” sentence against Sterling within federal guidelines of 19 to 24 years in prison. In January, a jury convicted Sterling, a former CIA agent, on nine counts related to leaking information to Risen, a Times reporter who in 2006 wrote a book that revealed the agency had mishandled a program to disrupt Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Sterling’s lawyers, Edward MacMahon Jr. and Barry Pollack, filed their sentencing memorandum today, arguing that their client “should be treated no more harshly than any other person who has been charged and convicted of ‘leaking’ to the press.” In addition to Petraeus, they cited the cases of John Kiriakou, a former CIA agent who was sentenced to 30 months in prison, and Stephen Kim, who received a 13-month sentence. Unlike Petraeus, Kiriakou and Kim, who reached plea agreements, Sterling took his case to a jury. He is scheduled to be sentenced on May 11.

“He should be treated similarly to others convicted for the same crimes and not singled out for a long prison sentence because he elected to exercise his right to trial,” the lawyers stated. “[T]he court cannot turn a blind eye to the positions the government has taken in similar cases.”

The Petraeus and Sterling cases have highlighted another disparity in the government’s handling of leak cases: powerful officials like Petraeus are treated leniently while mid-level ones like Kiriakou, Kim and Sterling go to jail. In the Petraeus case, the government claims no harm was caused by his leak, because none of the information he leaked to Paula Broadwell, his biographer and onetime lover, was published, whereas the information published by Risen had caused “substantial damage” to national security.

However, this characterization was called “overwrought hyperbole” by a former CIA official in a letter of support for Sterling released today by his lawyers. David J. Manners, a former station chief in Prague and Amman as well as chief of the agency’s Iran task force, described as “not credible” the prosecution’s claim that Risen’s book severely hurt the CIA’s ability to recruit spies. Manners, who first met Sterling when both worked at the agency, noted that the government itself has often disclosed the role of intelligence operatives.

“While such disclosures are never helpful, they happen all the time (and sometimes the United States quietly endorses the disclosure — read some of Bob Woodward’s books, or look at Agency collaboration on the film about the bin Laden raid),” Manners wrote.

Sterling’s lawyers called attention to what they regard as another inequity in the treatment of Petraeus and their client. Petraeus admitted in his plea agreement that the classified information he leaked included highly sensitive names of covert operatives, war plans for U.S. forces, as well as details about his discussions with senior officials, including President Obama. Petraeus also admitted to lying to FBI agents about what he had done. Sterling, his lawyers noted, “revealed the names of no covert personnel and never lied about his actions to the FBI.”

The prosecution appears to be trying to do more than put Sterling behind bars for two decades; it appears to be trying to rewrite history and put an end to leaks of information that embarrass the government.

In their sentencing memorandum released earlier this week, prosecutors described the program that Risen wrote about as “meticulously conceived” and “thorough,” whereas Risen, the prosecution noted, had portrayed it as a “rogue” operation that made the agency look “hapless, even reckless.” If it follows the prosecution’s request for a severe sentence, the court may be seen as affirming the government’s upbeat portrayal of the program, which involved providing Iran with nuclear blueprints that would not work. According to Risen’s book, the Iranians were able to figure out which part of the blueprints were accurate and used those.

The prosecution also argued that Sterling’s sentence should be rendered as a warning to other would-be leakers. “A substantial sentence in this case would send an appropriate and much needed message to all persons entrusted with the handling of classified information … that intentional breaches of the laws governing the safeguarding of national defense information will be pursued aggressively, and those who violate the law in this manner will be tried, convicted and punished accordingly.”

Sterling’s lawyers argued that he has already been punished severely — he was indicted five years ago, lost his job and is now “unemployed, unemployable, and destitute” — and that there is “no reason to believe that a substantial prison sentence given to a man who last worked at the CIA in 2002 will deter the leakers who supply information to the press on an almost daily basis to serve their own political and personal purposes.” They added, “People know they face penalties, and leaking has continued.”

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Photo: John W. Adkisson/Getty