Federal prosecutors on Monday urged a judge to impose a “severe” sentence on a former CIA officer convicted of giving classified information to a New York Times reporter, arguing that the officer’s case was unique and that a stiff penalty would dissuade others with access to government secrets from giving them away.
Prosecutors did not recommend a prison term for Jeffrey Sterling, 47, but they said they thought the 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. Sterling was convicted of nine criminal counts in January after jurors determined unanimously that he gave a Times reporter classified information about a secret operation to put faulty nuclear plans in the hands of Iranian officials.
The conviction was a significant win for federal prosecutors and a presidential administration that has pursued more leak cases than all its predecessors combined. It was also notable because federal authorities won without compelling the testimony of Times reporter and author James Risen. They initially sought to subpoena Risen but backed down when he repeatedly vowed to go to jail before he would reveal his sources. Sterling was accused, essentially, of being a source for Risen and his book “State of War.”
Sterling is to be sentenced May 11. An attorney for Sterling declined to comment on the prosecution’s memo, and the former CIA officer’s defense team has yet to file recommendations on a penalty.
In advocating for a stern sentence, prosecutors stressed Sterling’s motives and the damage his leaks did to one of the CIA’s few mechanisms to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions. They argued that Sterling, driven by “pure vindictiveness,” revealed details — some false or misleading — to Risen in an effort to get back at an agency he had been feuding with in court. That effectively shut down the operation that Sterling was once a part of and put in peril a Russian scientist and his family, who were working with the CIA, prosecutors argued. “The potential damage is uncontrollable and potentially limitless,” prosecutors wrote.
Prosecutors urged U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema to impose a sentence that “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.” They also seemed to bristle at the notion that Sterling revealed classified details because he thought the operation he was a part of was flawed.
“The trial in this case established conclusively that the defendant was no whistleblower,” prosecutors wrote. “He had nothing to blow the whistle on, so he invented a rogue operation and cast himself as the hero.”
The sentence Brinkema imposes could be controversial, given federal authorities’ handling of other recent leak cases. Former CIA director David H. Petraeus, a retired Army general, agreed to a plea deal last month that allows him to avoid prison, and the investigation of James E. “Hoss” Cartwright, a retired Marine general, has reportedly stalled over fears about the sensitive information that would be revealed during a prosecution. Sterling’s attorneys alleged in previous court filings that their client was selectively prosecuted, noting the Petraeus and Cartwright cases and suggesting that the “principal difference” between them and Sterling was “their respective races and rank.”
“The Government must explain why the justice meted out to white Generals is so different from what Mr. Sterling has faced,” Sterling’s attorneys wrote. Sterling is black.
Prosecutors did not address those cases specifically in their filing Monday but argued that Sterling’s case is “unique.”
“No other case charged in federal court even remotely resembles these facts,” they wrote.