What’s Wrong With This Picture?

It’s a story that has all the makings of a spy novel. It has already been at the core of a major expose by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

It’s unreal … and yet all too real. But, after all is said and undone, there is something wrong with the picture.

The key character list includes:

Jeffrey Sterling of O’Fallon, Missouri, a lawyer and former CIA officer.

James Risen, a reporter for The New York Times and author.

Supporting characters include:

Leonie Brinkema, judge, United States District Court Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria.

David Petraeus, former director of the CIA and a highly decorated four-star general — former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

John Brennan, Director, Central Intelligence Agency

Other characters include legal teams, the CIA and two presidents.

On Monday, a jury convicted Sterling on all nine counts of violating the Espionage Act by leaking classified information to New York Times reporter Risen information about a covert CIA plan. The plan, dubbed “Operation Merlin,” was a secret mission to undermine Iran’s nuclear program by slipping false nuclear blueprints to the Iranians through a Russian agent.

After the plan was exposed in Risen’s 2006 book, Risen refused to disclose his source. Risen referred to Operation Merlin as a “botched plan.” But at the trial, former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testified that the mission was one of the few options available to the U.S. as it sought to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

Judge Brinkema sentenced Sterling to 42 months in prison.

Prosecutors had called for 20 years. Sterling’s lawyers seemed relieved that the 3  1/2-year sentence was relatively light, but activists looked at it as a show trial. They see it as a warning to anyone who might disclose information that could be seen as an embarrassment to the government.

In contrast with Sterling’s sentence, former CIA Director David Petraeus, convicted in April for disclosing classified information, received no prison term. He was sentenced to two years’ probation and a $100,000 fine for disclosing highly sensitive information.

Whether Petraeus’ slap-on-the-wrist sentence was a result of his political connections, or because he knows too much, we will never know.

Sterling still insists that he is not guilty. He stands by his story that the case against him was a result of his having sued the CIA for racial discrimination. In an interview Sterling said he never gave information to a reporter. “I reached out to the Senate Intelligence Committee. I gave them my concerns about an operation I was involved in, and I thought it could have an impact — a negative impact — on our soldiers going into Iraq.”

After 9/11, Sterling offered to drop his discrimination claims. “I want to come back and help. The response was I got at that offer — dropping my suit — was … ‘You’re fired.’”

Out of work and living out of his car, Sterling hit bottom. Eventually, he found a job as a lawyer with a health insurance company, married, and thought his troubles were behind him. Then, in 2010, he was charged with leaking secret information. He knew he needed help.

Ironically, in a national political atmosphere that has become charged with racial strife, under a president who has been accused by opponents of playing the race card, Jeffrey Sterling has found no friend in Washington.

The trial was delayed for years, in part because of legal wrangling over whether Risen could be forced to testify. Ultimately, prosecutors chose not to call Risen as a witness, despite winning legal battles allowing them to do so. Without Risen’s testimony, prosecutors built a circumstantial case against Sterling. They introduced evidence showing regular contact between Risen and Sterling by phone and email.

What’s wrong with this picture? Not Sterling’s conviction and sentence. Like a well-constructed plot, the ending now seems almost inevitable. What makes no sense is that Jonathan Pollard, who leaked information to America’s closest ally, is still serving a life sentence.

Maybe Pollard should have given the information to The New York Times. They are not a U.S. ally.