Alexandria, VA — Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA agent convicted of sharing classified information with a New York Times reporter, was sentenced today to three and a half years in prison, a significantly shorter term than had been expected.
Sterling’s lawyers had asked the judge not to abide by sentencing guidelines calling for 19 to 24 years behind bars. They argued Sterling should be treated with the same leniency shown to former Gen. David Petraeus, who was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and avoid prison after admitting to leaking classified information to his biographer and then-girlfriend, Paula Broadwell. Sterling’s lawyers also pointed to the case of former CIA agent John Kiriakou, who was recently released from jail after a 30-month sentence for disclosing the name of a covert agent to a reporter, and to the 13-month-sentence handed down to Stephen Kim, who pleaded guilty to talking about a classified document with a Fox News reporter.
“[Sterling] 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,” his lawyers stated in a pre-sentencing memorandum, noting that Sterling had taken his case to a jury rather than reaching a pre-trial plea bargain with prosecutors. “[T]he court cannot turn a blind eye to the positions the government has taken in similar cases.”
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema seemed to agree.
“To put you at ease, the guidelines are too high,” Brinkema said as the sentencing hearing got underway, glancing at Sterling and his lawyers, Ed MacMahon and Barry Pollack.
She went on to say that Sterling’s case was similar to Kiriakou’s, for which she had also been the presiding judge, because both involved the disclosure of the identity of an intelligence agent. She said Sterling should serve more time because Kiriakou had pleaded guilty whereas Sterling pleaded innocent and was found guilty by a jury. Brinkema added that “a clear message” had to be sent to people in the intelligence community that a price will be paid for revealing the identities of intelligence agents and assets, though she also said, in what appeared to be a reference to Petraeus not serving any prison time, that the judicial system had to be fair.
Speaking to the media after the hearing, Pollack said, “We think (the jury) got it wrong. That said, the judge today got it right. She looked at all of the good work Jeffrey Sterling had done throughout his life and gave him a fair sentence under the circumstances. Today closes a sad chapter in a long saga.”
The sentence, while one of the longest for a leaker in the Obama era, was far lower than some people had expected. Jesselyn Radack, director of National Security and Human Rights at the Government Accountability Project, told The Intercept that she had expected “a lot worse” than 42 months. “Any jail time is excessive in light of what Gen. Petraeus got, but in light of what the government was seeking, between 19 and 24 years, this is the least worst outcome,” she said. Radack noted, however, that the offense for which Brinkema sent Kiriakou and Sterling to prison was also committed by Petraeus, because the information he shared with Broadwell included the identities of covert agents.
But in a series of its own pre-sentencing memos, the latest filed just a day before Brinkema issued her decision at the Alexandria federal courthouse, the prosecution claimed that Sterling’s conviction on nine counts in January was far more serious because he had been “willfully compromising a then-ongoing, extremely sensitive, closely-held operation designed to infiltrate and disrupt the nuclear weapons program of Iran and other rogue states, putting CIA assets at risk and exposing classified methods to our adversaries.”
Sterling, a 47-year-old former case officer in the agency’s Iran Task Force, was a handler of a Russian scientist turned spy who was the focal point of a complicated effort to provide Iran with faulty blueprints for nuclear centrifuges that, if used, would disrupt the nation’s effort to build its own nuclear weapons. According to James Risen, the Times reporter who wrote a book in 2006 disclosing the operation, the Iranians realized the blueprints were faulty and extracted accurate information from them. The prosecution disputes Risen’s reporting, contending that the operation was a success.
Prosecutors had tried to force Risen to disclose his source, but he refused. Nonetheless, the government used phone logs and emails between Risen and Sterling to show the jury that they talked in 2003, not long before Risen wrote his first story, which was not published by the Times after the Bush Administration warned of serious harm to national security. Those contacts, coupled with what the government portrayed as an effort by Sterling, who is black, to embarrass the agency after he filed a racial discrimination complaint, were enough to persuade a federal jury to convict him on criminal charges under the Espionage Act.
Though lighter than expected, Sterling’s sentence continues a trend of what appears to be highly selective punishment of leakers. Classified information is regularly leaked by government officials who want to make themselves or the government look good. Such “authorized leaks” are rarely prosecuted. For instance, an array of highly classified information about the killing of Osama bin Laden — which made the Obama administration look resolute and militarily effective — was leaked to the press and no one was punished in connection with the leaks. It tends to be only unauthorized leaks, particularly those that highlight wrongdoing or ineptitude, that the Department of Justice takes an interest in.
Sterling’s sentence, though more severe than those for Petraeus, Kiriakou and Kim, is not the harshest for leaking under the Obama administration. Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning, is currently serving a 35-year sentence for leaking a cache of diplomatic and military cables to Wikileaks, the website that publishes secret government and corporate documents.
Updated to add comments from Brinkema and Radack. May 11 3:52 pm ET
Photo: Peter Maass