CIA Leaker Sterling Sentenced to 3 1/2 Years

     ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) – Coming in 80 percent lower than guidelines recommended, a federal judge sentenced ex-CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling to just 42 months in prison Monday.
     “The guidelines are too high,” U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said. “The court is certainly not going to give a 235-month sentence.”
     Two hundred and thirty-five months represented the base recommendation of the guidelines that prosecutors had cited in calling on Brinkema to put Sterling away for leaking confidential government documents to a New York Times reporter.
     A jury convicted Sterling nearly four months ago on nine counts of leaking classified documents and obstructing justice related to the disclosure of information regarding a covert CIA operation in the late 1990s and early 2000s to sell faulty nuclear plans to Iran.
     Brinkema noted that the most significant crime that 47-year-old Sterling committed was exposing clues regarding the identity of a CIA asset the government had code-named “Merlin.”
     Operation Merlin involved using the former Russian scientist to market and sell Iran schematics for a flawed fire set, the mechanism in a nuclear weapon that essentially ignites the bomb.
     Brinkema said the identity of a person who works in service of the U.S. government is a more critical secret than the operation itself.
     Prosecutor James Trump spoke to this issue during his sentencing argument by emphasizing assurances Sterling made to Merlin while serving as his case officer for part of the operation.
     Though Sterling assured the asset that his identity would always remain a secret, Trump said the former agent’s betrayal became apparent when details about Operation Merlin appeared in James Risen’s 2006 book “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.”
     “The recklessness of what the defendant did is astounding,” Trump said.
     Defense attorney Edward McMahon meanwhile wanted the court to accept that any damage caused by information leaked to Risen about Operation Merlin is “water under the bridge at this point in time, from a factual standpoint.”
     Merlin and his family have not been harmed. No other CIA officer involved in Operation Merlin has been harmed, and the U.S. government has never found that Iran actually developed nuclear weapons, McMahon said. The attorney also noted ongoing peace negotiations between the United States and Iran regarding the latter’s nuclear program.
     The government sought to portray Sterling as angry, vindictive and selfish, lashing out against his former employer in 2002 and 2003 while fighting a discrimination lawsuit.
     McMahon said that’s not Sterling today.
     “Whoever he was in 2003, he’s not that person anymore,” McMahon said.
     Sterling has since gone to law school and gotten married. He had a successful career exposing health care fraud until the government filed criminal charges against him.
     In a brief statement to the court, Sterling thanked Brinkema for her fairness in overseeing the case and delaying his trial to let him attend his Marine brother’s funeral. The former agent also expressed his gratefulness to the courtroom staff for their kindness to him and his wife, Holly, who sat with a half-dozen supporters.
     Brinkema told Sterling that his sentencing would reflect the positive things he did before the CIA, including being the first in his family to graduate high school, and the valuable career he led after the CIA.
     Though she found it doubtful that Sterling might commit any similar criminal acts, Brinkema noted the importance of sending a strong message to others who would violate national security.
     After serving 42 months of prison, Sterling faces two years of supervised release.
     Sterling is allowed to surrender himself to authorities, and the court will recommend assigning him to a detention facility close to his home in O’Fallon, Mo.
     Brinkema clarified that she was sentencing Sterling to serve 42 months per count, but that it was fair to have him serve those sentences concurrently. Sterling would have received the same sentence had it been one or nine counts, Brinkema said.
     Prosecutor Eric Olshan declined to give a comment immediately following the sentencing, but the Department of Justice later issued statements attributed to U.S. Attorney Dana Boente and Andrew McCabe, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington, D.C., field office.
     The press release makes no mention of the far-below-guidelines sentencing.
     Speaking to reporters after the sentencing, defense attorneys McMahon and Barry Pollack both thanked Brinkema for her fairness under the circumstances.
     McMahon said the team may still file an appeal in the next 14 days.
     “We still believe in our client’s innocence, and intend to keep fighting this case all the way to appeal if necessary,” McMahon said.
     Pollack said this was one of those times in which the jury gets it wrong.
     “Today closes a sad chapter and a long saga,” Pollack said.

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