Sterling's crime, according to the U.S: violating the Espionage Act by revealing details about Operation Merlin, a covert operation during the Clinton Administration that was to provide Iran with flawed designs for nuclear weapons components, ostensibly to delay the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons program, or frame Iran.
The U.S. Espionage Act of 1917, on which prosecutors based their charges against Sterling, was also the basis of charges that led to the conviction of Wikileaks source Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning), and the basis of the case against NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. When passed in 1917, the law was intended to ban interference with military operations or recruitment, to prevent military insubordination, and to outlaw support of America's enemies during wartime.
With Sterling as a source, Risen wrote about Operation Merlin operation in his 2006 book, “State of War.” Risen described it as a botched mission which may have ended up advancing, rather than deterring, Iran’s nuclear program.
From The Intercept's coverage, by Peter Maass:
Sterling’s lawyers had asked the judge not to abide by sentencing guidelines calling for 19 to 24 years behind bars. They argued Sterling should be treated with the same leniency shown to former Gen. David Petraeus, who was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and avoid prison after admitting to leaking classified information to his biographer and then-girlfriend, Paula Broadwell. Sterling’s lawyers also pointed to the case of former CIA agent John Kiriakou, who was recently released from jail after a 30-month sentence for disclosing the name of a covert agent to a reporter, and to the 13-month-sentence handed down to Stephen Kim, who pleaded guilty to talking about a classified document with a Fox News reporter.
“[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,” his 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.”
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema seemed to agree.
“To put you at ease, the guidelines are too high,” Brinkema said as the sentencing hearing got underway, glancing at Sterling and his lawyers, Ed MacMahon and Barry Pollack.
She went on to say that Sterling’s case was similar to Kiriakou’s, for which she had also been the presiding judge, because both involved the disclosure of the identity of an intelligence agent. She said Sterling should serve more time because Kiriakou had pleaded guilty whereas Sterling pleaded innocent and was found guilty by a jury. Brinkema added that “a clear message” had to be sent to people in the intelligence community that a price will be paid for revealing the identities of intelligence agents and assets, though she also said, in what appeared to be a reference to Petraeus not serving any prison time, that the judicial system had to be fair.
Speaking to the media after the hearing, Pollack said, “We think (the jury) got it wrong. That said, the judge today got it right. She looked at all of the good work Jeffrey Sterling had done throughout his life and gave him a fair sentence under the circumstances. Today closes a sad chapter in a long saga.”
The sentence, while one of the longest for a leaker in the Obama era, was far lower than some people had expected. Jesselyn Radack, director of National Security and Human Rights at the Government Accountability Project, told The Intercept that she had expected “a lot worse” than 42 months. “Any jail time is excessive in light of what Gen. Petraeus got, but in light of what the government was seeking, between 19 and 24 years, this is the least worst outcome,” she said. Radack noted, however, that the offense for which Brinkema sent Kiriakou and Sterling to prison was also committed by Petraeus, because the information he shared with Broadwell included the identities of covert agents.
Related coverage, Matt Apuzzo in the New York Times: "Ex-C.I.A. Officer Sentenced in Leak Case Tied to Times Reporter"