What kind of retaliation would you expect to receive from the US government if you handed over state secrets to the media or public? Half a lifetime in prison? Being branded a traitor and charged with espionage? A fine and a slap on the wrist?
Any Tom, Dick, or Edward Snowden who leaks classified information on government activities might in the current climate under the Obama administration expect to receive either of the first two penalties — as famed whistleblowers, former soldier Chelsea Manning and ex-CIA analyst John Kiriakou, did, for example, when they were jailed for revealing classified information to, in Manning's case, WikiLeaks' Julian Assange, and, in Kiriakou's, to a freelance reporter.
The third seems like a less likely penalty, but it was essentially what former CIA director and retired general David Petraeus received in a Charlotte, North Carolina, court today after admitting to disclosing eight black books' worth of classified information to his biographer and former lover Paula Broadwell and later lying to investigators about it.
Petraeus, a retired four-star general who led soldiers through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, appeared in a federal court Tuesday afternoon dressed in a dark blue suit. Despite the charge carrying a penalty of up to a year in prison, the 62-year-old received a sentence of two years' probation and a $100,000 fine — which is $60,000 more than prosecutors requested under an earlier plea deal. The deal was struck last month after Petraeus pleaded guilty to one count of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material.
His deliverance from prison has irked critics, with many calling out the double standards separating punishments dealt to low-ranking government officials and politically well-connected individuals like Petraeus, who to this day continues to advise the White House on strategy in Iraq and policy on the so-called Islamic State.
"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," Kiriakou, who was jailed for 30 months for exposing his agency's use of torture post 9/11, told VICE News Thursday.
Kiriakou, who was released in February but remains under house arrest, highlighted similarities between both men's actions and plea bargains struck with prosecutors. In 2012, Kiriakou admitted to revealing the identity of a covert officer to a freelance journalist who did not publish the name. Petraeus also shared names of secret operatives in the black binders he shared with Broadwell in 2011 for her book All In. The punishments could not have been more disparate.
"Both Petraeus and I disclosed undercover identities — or confirmed one in my case — that were never published," Kiriakou said. "I spent two years in prison; he gets two years' probation."
Jesselyn Radack, a national security and human rights attorney who has represented numerous high-profile whistleblowers including Edward Snowden and Thomas Drake — a former NSA employee who spoke to a reporter about wasteful spending and surveillance at the agency — told VICE News the US has a "two-tier justice system when it comes to classified information."
"People who are in power or are politically connected, like the past three CIA directors, don't get prosecuted for leaking classified information," she said. "Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling faces a bloodbath on May 11. Petraeus just took a bubblebath." Sterling, a former CIA employee, was convicted of espionage for allegedly telling New York Times reporter James Risen about a CIA plan to provide Iran with a flawed blueprint for a nuclear bomb.
Radack, who is also a former ethics adviser to the US Department of Justice, suggested that the ropes that link Petraeus with the upper echelons of the White House seem to form part of the same lifeline he was strung today.
The leniency shown toward the general, who resigned just three days after President Barack Obama took office for his second term in 2012, could be seen as particularly inconsistent, given this administration's unprecedented prosecution of numerous low and mid-tier officials and whistleblowers, many of whom revealed "far less sensitive information [and] face much stiffer punishment," Radack said.
"Petraeus's conduct was far more outrageous and potentially harmful to the United States than anything Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, Chelsea Manning, Stephen Kim, or Jeffrey Sterling allegedly or actually did," she added.
Similar sentiments were previously vocalized by other whistleblowers and their attorneys after Petraeus' plea deal was first announced. A lawyer for former State Department contractor Stephen J. Kim, who received a 13-month sentence for revealing classified information on North Korea to Fox News, wrote a scathing letter to the Justice Department in March calling for his client's release.
Lawyer Abbe Lowell called Petraeus' deal a "profound double standard" in his letter.
"Lower-level employees like Mr. Kim are prosecuted under the Espionage Act because they are easy targets and lack the resources and political connections to fight back," he wrote.
In stark contrast, "Petraeus was never even indicted — for anything, and he pleaded guilty not under the draconian Espionage Act, but to a minor misdemeanor under a less severe law," Radack said Thursday, adding that the government offered the deal to the general even as it cracks down on whistleblowers currently caught up in the prosecutorial washing machine.
"My clients like Edward Snowden, who are facing espionage charges and prosecution, would welcome the sweetheart deal Petraeus just received," she said.
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields