David Petraeus, the former Army general and CIA director, admitted today that he gave highly-classified journals to his onetime lover and that he lied to the FBI about it. But he only has to plead guilty to a single misdemeanor that will not involve a jail sentence thanks to a deal with federal prosecutors. The deal is yet another example of a senior official treated leniently for the sorts of violations that lower-level officials are punished severely for.
According to the plea deal, Petraeus, while leading American forces in Afghanistan, maintained eight notebooks that he filled with highly-sensitive information about the identities of covert officers, military strategy, intelligence capabilities and his discussions with senior government officials, including President Obama. Rather than handing over these “Black Books,” as the plea agreement calls them, to the Department of Defense when he retired from the military in 2011 to head the CIA, Petraeus retained them at his home and lent them, for several days, to Paula Broadwell, his authorized biographer and girlfriend.
In October 2012, FBI agents interviewed Petraeus as part of an investigation into his affair with Broadwell — Petraeus would resign from the CIA the next month — and Petraeus told them he had not shared classified material with Broadwell. The plea deal notes that “these statements were false” and that Petraeus “then and there knew that he previously shared the Black Books with his biographer.” Lying to FBI agents is a federal crime for which people have received sentences of months or more than a year in jail.
Under his deal with prosecutors, Petraeus pleaded guilty to just one count of unauthorized removal and retention of classified information, a misdemeanor that can be punishable by a year in jail, though the deal calls only for probation and a $40,000 fine. As The New York Times noted today, the deal “allows Mr. Petraeus to focus on his lucrative post-government career as a partner in a private equity firm and a worldwide speaker on national security issues.”
The deal has another effect: it all but confirms a two-tier justice system in which senior officials are slapped on the wrist for serious violations while lesser officials are harshly prosecuted for relatively minor infractions.
For instance, last year, after a five-year standoff with federal prosecutors, Stephen Kim, a former State Department official, pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Espionage Act when he discussed a classified report about North Korea with Fox News reporter James Rosen in 2009. Kim did not hand over a copy of the report — he just discussed it, and nothing else — and the report was subsequently described in court documents as a “nothing burger” in terms of its sensitivity. Kim is currently in prison on a 13-month sentence.
“The issue is not whether General Petraeus was dealt with too leniently, because the pleadings indicate good reason for that result,” said Abbe Lowell, who is Kim’s lawyer. “The issue is whether others are dealt with far too severely for conduct that is no different. This underscores the random, disparate and often unfair application of the national security laws where higher-ups are treated better than lower-downs.”
In 2013, former CIA agent John Kiriakou pleaded guilty to violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by disclosing the name of a covert CIA officer to a freelance reporter; he was sentenced to 30 months in jail. Kiriakou’s felony conviction and considerable jail sentence — for leaking one name that was not published — stands in contrast to Petraeus pleading guilty to a misdemeanor without jail time for leaking multiple names as well as a range of other highly-sensitive information.
Kiriakou, released from prison earlier this year, told The Intercept in an emailed statement, “I don’t think General Petraeus should have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act, just as I don’t think I should have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Yet only one of us was. Both Petraeus and I disclosed undercover identities (or confirmed one, in my case) that were never published. I spent two years in prison; he gets two years probation.”
The prosecution of Kiriakou, Kim and other leakers and whistleblowers has been particularly intense under the Obama Administration, which has filed more than twice as many leak cases under the Espionage Act as all previous administrations combined. In 2013, Army Private Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning, pleaded guilty to violating the Espionage Act by leaking thousands of documents to Wikileaks, and she was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Manning received a harsh sentence even though then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in 2010 that the leaks had only “modest” consequences.
“I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought,” Gates said. “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”
Senior officials tend to get far kinder treatment. As The Times noted today, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was “admonished but not charged” for keeping classified information at his house; John Deutch, the former CIA director, resigned and lost his security clearance but was not charged for storing classified documents on a home computer; and former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor after he surreptitiously removed classified documents from the National Archives.