Former CIA Officer Jeffrey Sterling Sentenced to Jail for Leaking to Journalist

Jeffrey Sterling (Photo by Institute for Public Accuracy)

Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for leaking information to a journalist. It was the longest sentence issued by a federal court during President Barack Obama’s administration.

During a trial in January, the government convinced a jury, with largely circumstantial evidence, that Sterling leaked information about a top secret CIA operation in Iran called “Operation Merlin” to New York Times reporter James Risen, who published details on the operation in a chapter of his book, State of War. “Operation Merlin” involved the passage of flawed nuclear blueprints to Iran in order to get them to work on building a nuclear weapon that would never function.

He was convicted of violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses. The government had argued a sentence ranging from 19.5 to 24 years in prison would be reasonable.

Judge Leonie Brinkema, according to Times reporter Matt Apuzzo, said Sterling had “jeopardized the safety of a CIA informant.” And, “Of all the types of secrets kept by American intelligence officers, she said, ‘This is the most critical secret.’”

“If you knowingly reveal these secrets, there’s going to be a price to be paid,” Brinkema added. Sterling had to be punished in order to send a message to other officials, who might consider revealing these kinds of secrets.

Still, Brinkema did not issue a sentence that advocates for Sterling had feared might be issued against him.

“This is the least worst outcome,” Jesselyn Radack, director of the Government Accountability Project’s National Security and Human Rights division, declared. “I expected it to be worse given the huge amount of time that the government was requesting. That said, in my opinion, any jail time is excessive in light of the sweetheart plea deal that [David] Petraeus received for leaking classified information to his mistress.”

Sterling’s defense had argued [PDF] that the court could not “turn a blind eye to the positions the government has taken in similar cases.”

The government agreed to sentence Petraeus to two years of probation and a fine of $40,000 (which the judge hearing the case increased to $100,000). It was lenient considering the fact that Petraeus leaked “Black Books” containing the names of covert officers, war strategy notes, discussions from high level National Security Council meetings and notes from his meetings with President Barack Obama. He also lied to the FBI but was not charged with perjury or obstruction of justice. And the government allowed him to plead guilty to a misdemeanor violation instead of a violation of the Espionage Act.

“Sterling should not receive a different form of justice than General Petraeus,” Edward MacMahon Jr. suggested. (more…)

Federal Appeals Court Reverses Nun & Army Veterans’ Sabotage Act Convictions

Transform Now Three (Photo from Transform Now Plowshares)

A federal appeals court has reversed convictions in the case of an 85-year-old nun and two Army veterans, who broke into a United States government facility holding weapons-grade uranium, and called for nuclear weapons to be transformed into “real life-giving alternatives to build true peace.”

The activists’ sentences were vacated, and the appeals court ordered a lower court to re-sentence them.

On June 28, 2012, Megan Rice, a nun, and Greg Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli, both veterans, cut through multiple fences around the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

The activists were able to get to a Department of Energy building with enriched uranium. “There the trio spray-painted antiwar slogans, hung crime tape and banners with biblical phrases, splashed blood, and sang hymns,” according to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision [PDF].

The activists struck the building with small hammers, and their action effectively delayed a shipment that was supposed to arrive that afternoon.

Initially, the government charged the activists with trespassing and “injuring government property. When they refused to plead guilty, prosecutors essentially made a vindictive move and charged them with “violating the peacetime provision of the Sabotage Act,” which “Congress enacted during World War II.”

“That provision applies only if the defendant acted ‘with intent to injure, interfere with, or obstruct the national defense,’ and authorizes a sentence of up to 20 years,” the appeals court explained. “A jury convicted the defendants on the sabotage count and the injury-to-property count.”

The activists argued that they had no intent to violate the Sabotage Act and could not have violated this law. The federal appeals court agreed.

By using the Sabotage Act to prosecute a nun and two Army veterans who dared to engage in an act of nonviolent resistance against nuclear weapons, the government sought to accuse them of planning to interfere with the ability of the government to maintain national security.

“No rational jury could find that the defendants had that intent when they cut the fences; they did not cut them to allow al Qaeda to slip in behind,” the appeals court declared. “Nor could a rational jury find that the defendants had that intent when they engaged in their protest activities outside the [Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility].”

True, their ultimate goal in engaging in those activities was to advance the cause of disarmament, by persuading Y-12’s employees to abandon their pursuits there. But “the ultimate end” that “compel[s] the defendant to act . . . is more properly labeled a ‘motive.’” Kabat, 797 F.2d at 587. And the defendants’ immediate purpose in hanging the banners themselves, and in otherwise erecting their shrine outside the HEUMF, was simply to protest.

Such a conclusion is a huge victory for activists, because it means the government cannot stand in court and equate an act of protest with sabotage without evidence of motive.

The appeals court also rejected the idea that the defendants meant to interfere with the national defense by creating “bad publicity” for the facility.

“First Amendment issues aside, it takes more than bad publicity to injure the national defense,” the appeals court concisely declared. (more…)