David Petraeus receives no jail time for leaking, while whistleblowers face decades in jail

trevor

Executive director, Freedom of the Press Foundation

Former CIA director David Petraeus received his sentence today for the sweetheart plea deal he struck with the Justice Department after he was discovered to have leaked highly classified information to his biographer and lover Paula Broadwell. As was widely anticipated, the celebrated general received no jail time and instead got only two-years probation plus a $100,000 fine. (As journalist Marcy Wheeler has pointed out, that's less than Petraeus receives for giving one speech.)

The gross hypocrisy in this case knows no bounds. At the same time as Petraeus got off virtually scot-free, the Justice Department has been bringing the hammer down upon other leakers who talk to journalists—sometimes for disclosing information much less sensitive than Petraeus did. It's worth remembering Petraeus' leak was not your run-of-the-mill classified information; it represented some of the most compartmentalized secrets in government. Here's how the original indictment described the eight black books Petraeus handed over to Paula Broadwell:

The books “collectively contained classified information regarding the identifies of covert officers, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and mechanisms, diplomatic discussions, quotes and deliberative discussions from high-level National Security Council meetings… and discussions with the president of the United States.”

While Petraeus' supporters claim none of this information was ever released to the public after he leaked it to Broadwell, that does not matter in leak cases. You can just ask former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who disclosed the names of two supposedly undercover CIA officers to a researcher. The names were never published, but Kiriakou still got thirty months in jail. 

Let's also not forget that David Petraeus lied to FBI officials when they questioned him about his leak. For a reason the Justice Department never explained, he wasn't charged for lying at all. As the New York Times pointed out today, "Lying to federal agents is a felony that carries a sentence of up to five years in prison. The Justice Department has used that charge against terrorists, corrupt politicians and low-level drug dealers." Just apparently not former CIA directors.

Petraeus' deal comes just days after federal prosecutors recommended another sentence to a convicted leaker who worked for the same Central Intelligence Agency—Jeffrey Sterling. In Sterling's case the prosecutors are calling for twenty-four years of prison time. Sterling was convicted of leaking information to Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter James Risen about a botched CIA mission that occurred almost two decades ago. The lawyer for former State Department official Stephen Kim, currently in jail for leaking innocuous information to Fox News' James Rosen, has also objected to the "profound double standard" in Petraeus' case versus Kim's.

To be fair, the rank-and-file at the FBI and Justice Department seem to recognize how egregious the hypocrisy surrounding Petraeus' case is: while Attorney General Eric Holder himself signed off on the lenient deal, he reportedly did so over strenuous objections from FBI and DOJ officials.

Ultimately, no one should be charged under the Espionage Act for leaking information to journalists, but if the government is going to bring charges against low-level officials, it has a responsibility to do so against high-ranking generals as well. And actually, the Justice Department's reasoning behind not seeking a trial for Petraeus is quite telling for just how unjust the Espionage Act is. As the New York Times reported:

[W]ithout a deal, the Justice Department would have faced the prospect of going to trial against a decorated war hero over a disclosure of secrets that President Obama himself said did not harm national security. Plus, a trial would require the government to reveal some of the classified information.

The Justice Department's fear about an embarrassing trial is one the most egregious aspects of Espionage Act prosecutions against leakers and whistleblowers: defendants can be found guilty even if there was no damage to national security at all. It's not one of the elements of the crime, so prosecutors don't have to prove it. By forgoing a trial because they are afraid of graymail, the government is also basically saying to future leakers "if you're going to leak classified information, make sure it's something really classified." 

It's possible that Petraeus' deal was so egregious that this could be good news for other leakers. The Daily Beast's Kevin Mauer argued as much earlier today:

Petraeus’s relatively light punishment will likely have lasting ramifications on future leak cases, national security lawyers said. They argue the government is cutting its own throat by offering him a more lenient sentence in the wake of harsher penalties to other leakers and creating a double standard that can be exploited by defense attorneys in future cases.

However, given the government unrelenting pursuit of Sterling, there is little chance of this having a lasting effect. Unfortunately, the Petraeus case will go down in history as one of the most blantant examples of the inherent unfairness of leak trials and the two-tiered system of justice that whistleblowers often face. 

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