Leaking classified information to the media is a more serious offense than spying, the Justice Department argued in a court filing last week.The argument came in a motion supporting the detention of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer indicted for allegedly giving a reporter classified details about a CIA program aimed at interfering with Iran’s nuclear efforts.
“The defendant’s unauthorized disclosures…may be viewed as more pernicious than the typical espionage case where a spy sells classified information for money,” the prosecution team wrote in a brief submitted by attorneys at Justice Department headquarters and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Alexandria, Va.
“Unlike the typical espionage case where a single foreign country or intelligence agency may be the beneficiary of the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, this defendant elected to disclose the classified information publicly through the mass media. Thus, every foreign adversary stood to benefit from the defendant’s unauthorized disclosure of classified information, thus posing an even greater threat to society,” the brief said.
Sterling, who unsuccessfully sued the CIA for racial discrimination, was arrested earlier this month in Missouri on the indictment charging him with unauthorized disclosure of national defense information, mail fraud and obstruction of justice. The indictment doesn’t specify the precise nature of the information leaked, nor does it identify the reporter involved, but the charges contain enough detail to peg Sterling as a source for information contained in a book by New York Times reporter James Risen.
The Justice Department’s brief emphasizing the dangers of leaks could be seen as a preview of arguments the government will make against Wikileaks if authorities proceed with a prosecution of its founder, Julian Assange, or others who are part of the group. A prosecution of Wikileaks would open a significant new front in the Obama Administration’s war on leaks, which has so far targeted only leakers for prosecution and not those who receive the leaks.