A former CIA officer was sentenced to three and a half years in prison on Monday for leaking secret information to New York Times reporter James Risen.
The 42-month sentence for Jeffrey Sterling was much less than the 20 years Justice Department prosecutors sought in the case.
In January, Sterling was found guilty of leaking classified details about Iran’s nuclear program to Risen, who refused to name his source in the incident. Sterling, who is black, decided to give the information to Risen after filing an unsuccessful lawsuit accusing the spy agency of racial discrimination, the Justice Department said.
For part of his 19-year career at the CIA, Sterling handled an informant, a Russian scientist who helped the CIA pass to Iran faulty blueprints for nuclear centrifuges, in a program code named Merlin. The U.S. hoped the incorrect blueprints would set back Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Risen revealed the details of the operation in his 2006 book State of War. In the book, Risen claims that the mission was actually a failure — not only did Iran realize the blueprints were flawed, it were able to extract accurate information from them, which ended up speeding its path toward developing a nuclear weapon.
In recent months, the case had turned into a closely watched debate about press freedom, as the Justice Department attempted to force Risen to testify against his source. The Obama administration abandoned the effort in January, shortly before Sterling was found guilty.
During sentencing arguments, Sterling’s lawyers had urged the judge to be lenient with the sentencing. Former CIA Director David Petraeus, they noted, was able to avoid prison in April after pleading guilty to giving classified information to his biographer and then-girlfriend Paula Broadwell.