ALEXANDRIA, Virginia — A former CIA officer has been sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for leaking details of a secret mission to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Jeffrey Sterling had faced a recommended sentence of 20 years or more under federal sentencing guidelines for violations of the Espionage Act.
A jury convicted him in January of telling New York Times journalist James Risen about a classified plan to trick the Iranian government by slipping flawed nuclear blueprints through a Russian intermediary.
Prosecutors sought a stiff sentence at Monday’s hearing in federal court in Alexandria. The defense said his punishment should be more in line with that of former CIA Director David Petraeus. He got probation last month for leaking classified information to his biographer, who was also his mistress.
The classified operation at the heart of the trial involved using a CIA asset nicknamed Merlin, who had been a Russian nuclear engineer. Merlin traveled to Vienna in 2000 to foist deliberately flawed nuclear-weapons blueprints on the Iranians, hoping they would spend years trying to develop parts that had no hope of ever working.
Former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testified at Sterling’s trial that the Merlin mission was one of the few options available to the US as it sought to stop Iran’s nuclear program. She said the mission was one of the most closely held secrets during her time as national security adviser.
Risen published details of the Merlin operation in his 2006 book “State of War.” He had tried to publish a newspaper article in 2003, but Rice persuaded Times editors to kill the story, saying its publication would put lives at risk.
Sterling was under investigation for years as a potential source of the leak and was charged in 2010. The trial was delayed for four years, though, in part because of legal wrangling about whether Risen could be forced to testify. An appeals court eventually ruled against Risen, who sought immunity from a subpoena on First Amendment grounds.
Ultimately, though, prosecutors opted against putting Risen on the stand after he made clear that he would be uncooperative. Prosecutors were also hamstrung by then-Attorney General Eric Holder, who restricted the questions they could pose to him and reduced their leverage by promising that the Justice Department would not seek to jail reporters for contempt of court if they refused to testify.
Without Risen’s testimony, prosecutors built a circumstantial case against Sterling. They introduced evidence showing regular contact between Risen and Sterling by phone and email, though they never produced evidence to show that the two discussed classified information.
Prosecutors argued that Sterling was motivated by spite to retaliate against perceived mistreatment at the agency. Sterling, who is African-American, had sued the agency for racial discrimination but had a lawsuit tossed out after the CIA invoked a state-secrets privilege.
Defense lawyers had argued that Sterling had talked about his misgivings with the Merlin operation to congressional staffers who oversee intelligence agencies and that those staffers were likely the source of the leak.