Sterling Verdict Another Measure of Declining Government Credibility on Secrets

jeffrey-sterlingYesterday, Judge Leonie Brinkema sentenced Jeffrey Sterling to 42 months in prison for leaking information about a dubious CIA plot to deal nuclear blueprints to Iran to New York Times journalist James Risen.

Given how circumstantial the case against Sterling was — consisting largely of metadata — not to mention the hand slap David Petraeus got weeks ago for leaking far more sensitive information and then lying about it to the FBI, that’s a tough sentence.

But given the government’s call, in sentencing memoranda, that Sterling spend up to 24 years in prison, it was, as Government Accountability Project lawyer Jesselyn Raddack said, the least worst outcome.

The sentence should also be seen as a rebuke to the government and its frenzied claims about secrecy, most notably the claim they made in this case that leaking information to a journalist is worse than leaking it directly to our adversaries.

The sentencing “guidelines are too high,” Judge Brinkema told Sterling and his lawyers yesterday. She then proceeded to sentence Sterling along the same lines she did former CIA officer John Kiriakou — 3 years for leaking an officer or asset’s identity — plus 6 months in Sterling’s case because he did not admit guilt. In doing so, Brinkema treated this as one discrete leak and not the 7 incidences of espionage that the government charged it as.  Indeed, Brinkema’s sentence seemed to accept an argument Sterling’s lawyers had made in their own sentencing memorandum, that the Espionage Act was never meant to cover leaks to journalists.

The government’s insistence that whistleblowing and accountability equate to spying is coming under increasing scrutiny, even mockery.

And yet they refuse to learn. Even as Brinkema announced Sterling’s sentence yesterday, a rogue’s gallery of former CIA Directors and Deputy Directors wrote to the Times complaining that the newspaper had published the names of three top counterterrorism officials who have overseen significant screw-ups and criminal acts during the war on terror. They claimed that, “Officials who work on covert operations do not escape accountability.”

And yet among the men who signed this letter were: Michael Hayden, who ran an illegal wiretap program encompassing all Americans and repeatedly, egregiously lied to Congress; George Tenet, who oversaw a torture program that exceeded even the expansive guidelines approved by DOJ; Leon Panetta, who exposed the identities of SEAL team members who killed Osama bin Laden so Hollywood could celebrate their role in a film falsely proclaiming of the value of torture.

And David Petraeus.

David Petraeus, the man who leaked the identities of classified officers to his mistress so she could write a fawning biography of him, who will not spend a day in prison for a crime akin to what Sterling committed, signed a letter claiming that those who work on covert operations — as Petraeus himself did at both DOD and CIA — “do not escape accountability.”

There is no better evidence that those who work on covert operations do escape accountability than this list of signatories, many of whom have done just that.

In a speech given last week at an Intelligence Community legal conference, former Assistant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith warned the IC’s lawyers that, “Your credibility about national security harm is a limited and diminishing resource and must be spent carefully.”

That credibility is indeed diminishing quickly.


About Marcy Wheeler

Investigative journalist Marcy Wheeler wrote the "Right to Know" column for ExposeFacts. She is best known for providing in-depth analysis of legal documents related to "war on terrorism" programs and civil liberties. Wheeler blogs at and publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon and the Progressive. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit: How the Bush Administration Used the Media to Sell the Iraq War and Out a Spy. Wheeler won the 2009 Hillman Award for blog journalism.