Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison Monday for leaking classified information to a New York Times reporter. Prosecutors asked that he face a severe penalty, while defense attorneys wanted his punishment to be in line with other recently convicted leakers. Here is a look at the sentences some of them have faced, and how their cases are similar to — or different from — Sterling’s.
Former CIA director and retired Gen. David Petraeus
The sentence: Two years of probation and a $100,000 fine
Differences in brief: He pleaded guilty, and the material he leaked was never published
Case in depth: Petraeus pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count of mishandling classified materials and was sentenced to two years of probation and a $100,000 fine. That the retired general reached an agreement with prosecutors separates him from Sterling; the lower ranking CIA officer, by contrast, fought his case at trial and was ultimately found guilty by a jury of nine felony counts.
Petraeus admitted that he gave his mistress and biographer, Paula Broadwell, access to classified, highly sensitive information he kept in personal notebooks. That information included code words for secret intelligence programs, identities of covert officers and war strategy, and the Justice Department said it could have caused “exceptionally grave damage” if revealed. Prosecutors have alleged, similarly, that Sterling’s disclosures “strike at the core of the United States’ national security interests.”
Importantly, though, the classified material that Petraeus shared with Broadwell — who herself had a security clearance — was never published. Prosecutors alleged that Sterling’s leaks formed the basis for a chapter in New York Times reporter James Risen’s book, “State of War.” Prosecutors have also argued Sterling’s leak caused actual damage, forcing the U.S. to abandon a program meant to stem Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Former NSA Official Thomas Drake
The sentence: One year of probation and 240 hours of community service
Differences in brief: Drake pleaded guilty, and the prosecution of him was flawed.
Case in depth: Drake ultimately pleaded guilty to a single count of exceeding unauthorized use of a protected computer and was sentenced to a year of probation and 240 hours of community service, though that hardly tells the story of his case. Accused initially of passing classified information to a Baltimore Sun reporter, Drake steadfastly maintained his innocence, and ultimately, the case against him collapsed. He agreed to a plea deal just days before he was set to go to trial, and a judge criticized prosecutors for badly mishandling the matter.
Sterling’s case, of course, is almost entirely different. While some in media circles were critical of the Justice Department’s effort to compel the testimony of New York Times reporter James Risen, prosecutors ultimately never called the journalist at trial, and they still won.
Former State Department arms expert Stephen Jin-Woo Kim
The sentence: 13 months in prison
Differences in brief: He pleaded guilty, and the damage his leak caused is questionable.
Case in depth: Kim pleaded guilty to sharing classified information from an intelligence report on North Korea with a Fox News reporter and was sentenced to 13 months in prison. Sterling, by contrast, fought his case at trial and was ultimately convicted of nine criminal counts. Kim’s sentence was formally agreed upon in advance.
Prosecutors noted that unlike Sterling, Kim’s leak did not shut down an ongoing intelligence operation. The damage that it caused is questionable. The Intercept reported in an in-depth look at the case that one State Department official described the intelligence report that Kim leaked as a “nothing burger,” and another said the Fox News story about it revealed “nothing extraordinary.”
Former CIA officer John Kiriakou
The sentence: 30 months in prison
Differences in brief: He pleaded guilty.
Case in depth: Kiriakou pleaded guilty to disclosing the identity of an undercover CIA operative and was sentenced to 30 months in prison. That separates him from Sterling, who fought his case at trial and was ultimately convicted of nine criminal counts.
Kiriakou cast himself as a whistleblower who was among the first to publicly reveal the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other controversial interrogation methods, the same U.S. District Court judge who is to sentence Sterling rejected that notion. The former officer admitted as part of his plea deal that he told a journalist the name of a CIA operative who participated in the interrogations. Prosecutors said, that, though, was just the tip of the iceberg, and that he had put the officer in danger and hurt the agency’s ability to collect intelligence.
Those allegations are similar to the ones Sterling faced. Prosecutors said he forced the U.S. to abandon one of its only ways to stem Iran’s nuclear ambition, and he put at risk a Russian scientist who was cooperating with the CIA. But prosecutors argued recently that Kiriakou’s case was different, because he did not admit as part of his plea that he compromised an ongoing intelligence operation.
Army private Chelsea Manning
The sentence: 35 years in prison
Differences in brief: Manning leaked the largest cache of classified documents in U.S. history.
Case in depth: Like Sterling, Manning fought her case at trial. She was ultimately convicted by a military judge of most of the more than 20 counts she faced — including several violations of the Espionage Act — though she was acquitted of the most serious charge of aiding the enemy.
Prosecutors have said Manning leaked the largest quantity of classified documents in U.S. history. While they have similarly alleged that Sterling’s leak caused serious damage to national security interests, Manning’s case would seem to stand on another level.