Defense attorneys for the former CIA officer convicted of giving classified information to a New York Times reporter urged a federal judge on Friday to sentence their client in line with the terms faced by other so-called leakers — noting that not 24 hours prior, a retired general and ex-CIA director was given mere probation in a similar case.
Defense attorneys for Jeffrey Sterling did not endorse a specific penalty, but they urged U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema to consider the impact of the case and be fair. The defense attorneys argued that in three other recent leak cases, those convicted received — at the most — 30 months in prison. On Thursday, retired general and former CIA chief David Petraeus was sentenced to two years of probation and a $100,000 fine.
“In meting out justice,” defense attorneys wrote, “the Court cannot turn a blind eye to the positions the Government has taken in similar cases.”
Sterling, 47, was convicted in January of nine criminal counts after jurors determined unanimously that he gave classified information to New York Times reporter James Risen about a sensitive operation to put faulty nuclear plans in the hands of Iranian officials. Federal prosecutors this week urged a judge to impose a “severe” sentence and said they felt the U.S. probation office had correctly calculated the range in the federal sentencing guidelines as 19 years 7 months on the low end and 24 years 5 months on the high end.
Such a sentence would have few parallels: The closest might be the 35-year prison term imposed by a military judge on Chelsea Manning, who leaked the largest volume of classified documents in U.S. history. And Sterling’s defense attorneys argued that a prison term within the guidelines would be “plainly excessive,” essentially penalizing Sterling for not taking a plea deal.
“Mr. Sterling was convicted, under the Espionage Act, for ‘leaking’ information to a reporter,” defense attorneys wrote. “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 a trial.”
Defense attorneys pointed to two similar cases in which alleged leakers reached plea agreements and avoided years behind bars. Former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who revealed the name of another covert officer, was ultimately sentenced to 30 months in prison, and former State Department arms expert Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, who leaked classified information to a Fox News reporter, was ultimately sentenced to 13 months in prison, defense attorneys argued.
They argued that Petraeus, who lied to the FBI, reached a deal to avoid prison entirely.
“Mr. Sterling should not receive a different form of justice than General Petraeus,” Sterling’s defense attorneys wrote.
Prosecutors have characterized Sterling’s case as “unique” and argued that the harm he caused to national security was grave. They have argued that Sterling, motivated by “pure vindictiveness,” leaked details that compromised one of the nation’s few ways to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and in doing so, put a Russian scientist who was working with the CIA in danger.
In their filing, defense attorneys disputed that notion. They acknowledged the case was a serious one but suggested the government had overstated the actual damage that was done. They bolstered their assertion by submitting a letter from a Sterling friend and former CIA officer, who suggested some of the government’s assertions were overblown.
“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,” defense attorneys wrote. “No evidence was presented that the disclosures alleged in this case aided the Iranians in any way.”
Defense attorneys also sought to humanize Sterling — attaching letters from dozens of supporters to describe his illustrious background and how the charges had essentially ended his career prospects. The attorneys noted that the case had dragged on for years as prosecutors sparred in court with Risen, whom they had initially sought to subpoena before eventually backing down.
“Those three years are lost to Mr. Sterling, as well, both in his ability to lead a productive life and as time he could have spent serving any sentence this Court may impose,” defense attorneys wrote.
Sterling is scheduled to be sentenced May 11.