Lines Drawn in CIA Leaker’s Sentencing

     ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN)- As the sentencing date nears for an ex-CIA agent convicted of leaking confidential government documents, the posturing has begun over what level of punishment fits his crimes.
     Jeffrey Sterling was found guilty on nine felony counts of leaking information related to a covert CIA operation to sell faulty nuclear plans to Iran. His two-week trial in January featured testimony from a parade of CIA officials and former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.
     Sterling was a case officer with “Operation Merlin” in the late 1990s, working with a former scientist from Russia whom the CIA recruited to sell the flawed plans to Iran and thereby slow the country’s progress in developing a nuclear weapons program.
     Details about the operation were exposed — and also criticized as incompetent — in New York Times reporter James Risen’s 2006 book, “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.”
     According to Risen, it was a “rogue operation” that may have actually helped Iran make progress on its nuclear program. Government prosecutors spent much of the trial laying out details of the CIA’s work and defending the success of Operation Merlin.
     A sentencing memorandum filed by the government on Tuesday asks U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema to impose a “severe sentence” that reflects “the severity of the conduct.”
     The guidelines call for a prison sentence of 235 to 293 months, according to the Department of Justice, because of the importance of halting Iran’s nuclear program.
     “These are matters of war and peace,” the agency’s memorandum said.
     Preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons has been a U.S. objective for many years, and according to Rice’s trial testimony, the government believed Operation Merlin was one of the few levers it had to disrupt Iran’s program.
     The government used these statements, as well as subsequent comments by President Barack Obama on the sensitivity of ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, to make its case for why Sterling deserved a lengthy prison sentence.
     Sterling abused his position of trust as Merlin’s case officer and one of the few people in the entire federal government who knew about Operation Merlin, the government said in its memorandum. Sterling repeatedly reaffirmed his commitment to keeping government documents secret throughout his nine years in the CIA, and he broke those promises when he gave confidential information to Risen, prosecutors said.
     He also endangered the lives of Merlin and his family with his disclosures, the government said.
     “A substantial sentence in this case would send an appropriate and much needed message to all persons entrusted with the handling of classified information, i.e., 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,” prosecutors wrote.
     Famed civil rights activist Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu waded into Sterling’s case with a March 26 letter that asks Judge Brinkema to consider equity in justice when sentencing Sterling, comparing his case to that of former CIA director David Petraeus.
     Petraeus shared notebooks full of confidential CIA information with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, with whom he had an extramarital affair in 2011. The discovery of his affair led to his November 2012 resignation from the CIA, and in March he entered into a plea deal to avoid prosecution for leaking of classified information.
     Petraeus’ deal allowed him to plead guilty to one misdemeanor charge of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material, and he will pay a $40,000 fine and be sentenced to no more than two years’ probation.
     Tutu referenced a March 25 editorial published in the Los Angeles Times entitled, “A double standard on government secrets for David Petraeus.”
     As described by the newspaper, low-level government officials and contractors who have been pursued by “the Obama administration’s unprecedented war on national-security leaks” have been sentenced to at least a year in prison for divulging information nowhere near the scope and sensitivity of the information Petraeus shared with Broadwell.
     “The whiff of a double standard is overwhelming,” the Los Angeles Times’ editorial board wrote. “If anything, a leader at Petraeus’ level should be held to a higher standard than lower-level officials or contractors.”
     Tutu asked Brinkema to challenge the cynicism that says the rule of law and equal justice are often not fulfilled in the real world.
     “Equality under the law, as a cornerstone of justice, is significantly at stake in the sentencing of Mr. Sterling,” Tutu wrote.
     Quoting the Los Angeles Times editorial, Tutu said that the disparate sentences seen in recent government leak cases “may be the way of the world, but it’s not justice,” and he asked the Judge Brinkema to sentence Sterling in a manner consistent with aspirations for equal justice under the law.
     “Your Honor, I appeal to you to provide the sentencing of Mr. Sterling with a sense of equity that can help to move the way of the world closer to real justice, nurturing belief in the law as a guardian of justice and not a violator of it,” Tutu wrote.
     Sterling’s defense attorneys, Edward McMahon and Barry Pollack, could not be reached for comment. Sterling is scheduled to be sentenced May 11 in the Alexandria Federal Court.

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