A Who’s Who of diplomats, academics, military brass and politicians – including a former world leader – sought to keep former General David Petraeus out of prison for leaking government secrets before his April sentencing in Charlotte.
Documents released Monday showed former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and three U.S. senators were among 34 people rallying around the general in letters to U.S. Magistrate Judge David Keesler of Charlotte.
Petraeus, once American’s top military commander and CIA director, was sentenced to two years’ probation and a $100,000 fine, a lighter punishment than other less prominent figures received for sharing classified information.
And unlike most other cases, the letters and other sentencing documents for Petraeus had remained shielded from public view.
An unusual rule in the federal court district that covers Charlotte and western North Carolina prevents the public from seeing a defendant’s sentencing memorandum and letters of support. The documents provide detailed information about the circumstances and legal arguments judges consider when they determine a defendant’s punishment.
Keesler ordered the records released after the Observer and eight other media organizations filed a court motion to unseal them.
“This is an example of why that secrecy is not appropriate,” said Hanna Bloch-Wehba with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, one of the media groups that sought the Petraeus documents. “We knew those letters were going to be of particular interest because they are written by a Who’s Who of the political and military establishment.”
Legal experts said sentencing memorandums and letters are routinely made public in other federal court districts. They said they did not know any other jurisdictions in the country where the records are sealed without approval from a judge.
But it was not immediately clear whether the release of the Petraeus documents would mean more transparency in future cases in western North Carolina.
A rules committee comprised of roughly 16 legal experts makes policy recommendations for the local federal courts, said Frank Johns, clerk of court for the Western District of North Carolina. A board of federal judges from the local district can accept or reject the committee’s ideas, Johns said.
Committee members typically only meet once every two years, he said.
Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon is serving a 44-month prison sentence for accepting more than $50,000 from undercover FBI agents. The Observer filed a court motion seeking to unseal his sentencing memorandum documents, including letters of support.
Johns said the local rules committee would not consider amending existing policy until after a judge decides whether to release Cannon’s documents.
“The information our judges consider when sentencing defendants, especially high profile former public officials like David Petraeus and Patrick Cannon, should be available to the public,” said Jon Buchan, an attorney representing the Observer. “That transparency encourages citizens to have confidence in our criminal justice system.”
In court filings, Petraeus’ lawyers did not object to the release of the sentencing memorandum or letters written on his behalf, with a few exceptions. The judge granted their request to redact telephone numbers, emails and home addresses, as well as one sentence from a confidential court presentencing investigation report.
Petraeus, 62, was charged with sharing military and diplomatic secrets with his biographer and former lover, Paula Broadwell of Charlotte.
Petraeus was sentenced under an agreement approved by his attorneys, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and local prosecutors. He pleaded guilty to one count of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Critics say his celebrity and political connections helped keep him free. In some other recent cases, officials accused of leaking government secrets were put behind bars, including ex-CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling who was sentenced last month to 31/2 years in prison.
Edward MacMahon, who represented Sterling, said the difference between Petraeus and the others is that he was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge instead of a felony.
“If the government says they don’t want you to go to jail, then the judge is not going to put you in jail,” said MacMahon, who asked the court to show Sterling the same leniency Petraeus received. “That’s where his background got the government to act differently. That’s where it paid off.”
But in letters to Keesler, supporters argued that Petraeus had suffered enough.
Graham Allison, a native Charlottean who helped found Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, asked the judge for “a measure of mercy.”
“He is widely acknowledged to be the greatest general of recent times,” Allison wrote. “He took a losing hand in Iraq, imagined a surge … and led the U.S. to at least a draw, rather than defeat.”
Blair, the former British leader, said “the world needs (Petraeus’) continued presence and engagement.”
“Personally I think he is perhaps the best security thinker on the counter-terrorism issue I know,” he wrote. “We need his service at this time and his brainpower.”
Offering testimonials were U.S. Sens. Diane Feinstein of California and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina as well as former Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.
Petraeus drew praise from officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations. Stephen Hadley, National Security Adviser under President George W. Bush, and Thomas Donilon, who held the post under President Barack Obama, both wrote on his behalf. So did Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador in the Middle East under both presidents.