Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Corporate gatekeepers and big tech monopolists are making it more difficult than ever for independent media to survive. Please chip in today.

Advocates say Sterling is the latest casualty in the Obama administration’s war on national security whistleblowers. (Photo: AP)

'Guilty of Embarrassing Government': CIA Whistleblower Gets 42-Month Sentence

Prosecution of Jeffrey Sterling stands in stark contrast to leniency granted to former CIA director General David Petraeus

Lauren McCauley

A federal court in Alexandria, Virginia sentenced former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling to three and a half years in prison on Monday in a case that has received widespread condemnation for revealing the "rank hypocrisy" of the U.S. government's war on whistleblowers.

In January, a jury convicted Sterling of violating the Espionage Act and leaking classified information to New York Times journalist James Risen about a botched CIA mission to provide flawed nuclear plans to Iran, known as "Operation Merlin." He was found guilty of nine charges against him and faced as many as 24 years behind bars.

Risen refused to testify against Sterling and many say that the former intelligence official was convicted merely on circumstantial evidence.

Ahead of the sentencing, Sterling's attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema to reconsider the proposed terms, arguing that former CIA director and retired general David Petraeus was given a plea deal and shown great leniency despite comparable charges. In March, Petraeus was handed a $40,000 fine and two years probation for leaking troves of classified material to his mistress and biographer Paula Broadwell.

"[Sterling] should be treated similarly to others convicted for the same crimes and not singled out for a long prison sentence because he elected to exercise his right to trial,” Sterling's lawyers stated in a pre-sentencing memorandum, noting that Sterling had taken his case to a jury rather than reaching a pre-trial plea bargain with prosecutors. "[T]he court cannot turn a blind eye to the positions the government has taken in similar cases."

Following the announcement on Monday, advocates held that even the lesser sentence revealed the inequalities of the U.S. justice system with dangerous implications for government accountability. Further, the conviction marks the longest sentence delivered to a convicted leaker in a civilian court during Obama's tenure.

"Sterling is the latest casualty in the administration’s war on national security whistleblowers," said attorney Jesselyn Radack, who serves as the national security and human rights director for the Government Accountability Project. "Like the other whistleblowers prosecuted under the Espionage Act, Sterling is guilty of embarrassing the government. This case lays bare the government’s rank hypocrisy in the prosecution of leaks. If you’re loyal to the truth rather than the national security establishment you’ll be bludgeoned."

In an emailed statement from the Alexandria courthouse, Norman Solomon, coordinator of whistleblower advocacy organization ExposeFacts.org and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, told Common Dreams: "The only fair trial would have been no trial at all. The only fair sentence would have been no sentence at all. Whistleblowing is a public service, and the government's continuing efforts to criminalize that public service is a double-barreled assault on both journalism and the democracy that it vitally seeks to nurture."

Prior to revealing his concerns about the covert CIA operation, Sterling, a black man, had filed a discrimination lawsuit against the agency. Supporters say he was unfairly targeted because of those claims.

ExposeFacts.org has compiled a history of information about Sterling's trial.

Meanwhile, his supporters have initiated a fundraiser for the Sterling family, which has been forced to depend solely on the income of Sterling's social worker wife after he lost his job.

Following the sentencing, supporters and transparency advocates shared their reactions on Twitter.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Omar Leads Charge Against Baby Formula Monopolies Amid US Shortage

Democrats urge the FTC to probe "any unfair or unsustainable practices, like deceptive marketing, price gouging, and stock buybacks, that may be weakening our nutritional formula supply."

Jessica Corbett ·


'Arbitrary, Racist, and Unfair': Judge Blocks Biden From Ending Title 42

"Only the coyotes profiteering off of people seeking protection have reason to celebrate this ill-reasoned ruling," said one migrant rights advocate.

Brett Wilkins ·


'This Is a War' for Democratic Party's Future, Says Sanders of AIPAC's Super PAC

"They are doing everything they can to destroy the progressive movement in this country," said the senator.

Julia Conley ·


Ginni Thomas Pressed Arizona Lawmakers to Reverse Biden's 2020 Win: Report

"Clarence Thomas' continued service on the Supreme Court is a scandalous and appalling breach of judicial ethics," said one observer. "He is implementing the exact same theories that his wife used to try to steal the 2020 election for Trump."

Brett Wilkins ·


Millions More Kids Going Hungry Since GOP, Manchin Killed Expanded Child Tax Credit

"Even brief disruptions in access to food can have lasting consequences," wrote the authors of a new analysis of worsening hunger among U.S. families.

Kenny Stancil ·

Common Dreams Logo