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Ex-CIA officer jailed for leaking

By Tara McKelvey

Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling spoke to a journalist in Washington about the CIA. Now a judge has sentenced him to prison for three and a half years for revealing classified information.

Jeffrey Sterling
Jeffrey Sterling

Mr Sterling, 47, stood in front of a judge in Alexandria Federal Court in the US state of Virginia.

“You have a lot of talent – and an ability to live a law-abiding life,” Judge Leonie Brinkem told him. But, she said, the offences he had committed were severe.

“There has to be a clear message sent to other people at the agency,” she said, explaining that intelligence officers should understand that they, too, will be punished if they disclose classified information. “There’s going to be a price that will be paid.”

After the court adjourned, Mr Sterling turned around. His wife, Holly, sobbed against his shoulder. He reached out his arm stiffly to comfort her, and they walked out of the courtroom together.

It’s the end of a legal battle for him. It also concludes a trial that’s been watched closely by journalists, intelligence officers and others in the US and abroad.

In January Mr Sterling was convicted of espionage on charges that he revealed classified information – he spoke to a journalist, James Risen, who writes for the New York Times, about the efforts of US officials to disrupt Iran’s nuclear programme.

Mr Risen wrote about the American plot in a book called State of War, which was published in 2006. He said Americans tried to create misleading guidelines for Iranian scientists that would trip them up as they worked on their nuclear programme.

The then-attorney general, Eric Holder, said Mr Sterling’s decision to reveal details about the CIA programme to a journalist put people’s lives at risk and endangered national security.

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For these reasons Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and the author of a book called Necessary Secrets, believes that his sentence is light.

“He endangered the life of a source that the CIA relied on for an intelligence plot,” Mr Schoenfeld said, adding that these disclosures “compromised” US efforts to thwart the Iranian nuclear programme.

Prosecutors said Mr Sterling felt as though he’d been treated badly at the CIA and was angry at the agency. That’s why he decided to speak about its secret activities.

“His attempt to leverage national security information for his own malicious reasons brought him to this sentence today,” said US Attorney Dana Boente.

Mr Sterling’s path to intelligence work was an unlikely one. He grew up in Cape Girardeau, a town of 38,000 people, in the state of Missouri, and graduated from law school at Washington University in St Louis in 1992.

He saw a help-wanted advertisement in a newspaper for the CIA.

He started working there in 1993, spending time in Prague, Amman and other cities. In 2002 he left on bad terms, saying he’d been discriminated against because he’s black.

He filed lawsuits against the agency. He also spoke to Mr Risen, apparently revealing state secrets. For that he was punished – unfairly, according to some.

“It’s a hefty sentence,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists.

Critics of the Obama White House claim officials reveal classified information to journalists when it suits their purposes – to show, for instance, the president is tough on national security.

But when information that makes the president looks bad is leaked, administration officials get angry – and sometimes decide to prosecute.

Mr Aftergood compared Mr Sterling’s sentence to the one meted out to a former CIA director, David Petraeus, who convicted of revealing classified information. Mr Petraeus was sentenced to two years’ probation.

“It shows that this sort of crime gets punished unevenly and unfairly,” said Mr Aftergood.

Whatever the reasons for prosecution, the pace has stepped up in recent years.

Eight people have been prosecuted for leaking classified information in recent years. Before Mr Obama was elected, only three individuals had been prosecuted. BBC