A Few Comments on the David Petraeus Plea Deal: What Money And Connections Buy You

David Petraeus, who suffered a fall worthy of a Greek tragedy when was caught leaking classified information to his biographer-girlfriend, has reached a plea deal with the feds, in the person of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina.

As of now two documents are available online. There’s the Information, which is the charging document the feds use when grand jury indictment is not required or when the defendant waives that right. There’s also the factual basis — the narrative of facts to which Petraeus will admit. These documents reveal that Petraeus has agreed, in advance of charges being filed, to take a misdemeanor.

Generally, poor people react and rich people are proactive. Petraeus is sophisticated and has assets; he could afford to hire lawyers to negotiate with the feds before they charged him. As a result, he was able to secure a pretty good outcome that controlled his risks. The feds let him plead, pre-indictment, to a misdemeanor charge of improper removal and retention of classified documents under 18 USC section 1924. That means even if the federal judge who sentences him goes on a rampage, he can’t get more than a year in federal prison — and, given that it’s a misdemeanor, will very likely get far less. The Factual Basis includes a United States Sentencing Guideline calculation in which the government and Petraeus agree he winds up at an Adjusted Offense Level of 8, which means the judge can give him straight probation.

It is very difficult to get a misdemeanor out of the feds.

Petraeus’ factual basis reveals that he could have been charged with much, much worse. The statement discusses his “Black Books” containing his schedules and notes during his command in Afghanistan; those books contained “national defense information, including Top Secret/SCI code word information.” (Factual Basis at paragraphs 17-18.) Petraeus, after acknowledging that “there’s code word stuff in there,” gave the Black Books to his biographer/girlfriend at her private residence. “The DC Private Residence was not approved for the storage of classified information,” the statement notes dryly. (Factual Basis at paragraphs 22-25.) He retrieved the Black Books a few days later after she had been able to examine them, and retained them. Thereafter, when he resigned from the CIA, he signed a certification that he had no classified material in his possession, even though he had the Black Books. (Factual Basis at paragraph 27.) Later, when Petraeus consented to interviews with FBI agents1 he lied to them and told them that he had never provided classified information to his biographer/girlfriend. (Factual Basis at paragraph 32.)

To federal prosecutors, that last paragraph of facts is like “Free Handjob And iPad Day” at Walt Disney World. First, you’ve got the repeated false statements to the government, each of which is going to generate its own charge under 18 U.S.C. 1001, which makes it illegal for you to lie to your government no matter how much your government lies to you. Then you’ve got the deliberate leaking of top secret/code word defense data to a biographer. An aggressive prosecutor might charge a felony under 18 U.S.C. section 793 (covering willful disclosure of national defense information) or 18 U.S.C. section 798 (covering disclosure of classified communications intelligence materials or information derived therefrom), both of which have ten-year maximum penalties. Those charges don’t seem to require any intent to harm the U.S. — only disclosure of information which could harm the U.S. if distributed. Other than that? You better believe there would be a conspiracy count for Petraeus’ interaction with his girlfriend.

If Petraeus were some no-name sad-sack with an underwater mortgage and no connections and no assets to hire lawyers pre-indictment, he’d almost certainly get charged a lot more aggressively than he has been. This administration has been extremely vigorous in prosecuting leakers and threatening the press.

So why is Petraeus getting off with a misdemeanor and a probable probationary sentence? Two reasons: money and power. Money lets you hire attorneys to negotiate with the feds pre-charge, to get the optimal result. Power — whether in the form of actual authority or connections to people with authority — gets you special consideration and the soft, furry side of prosecutorial discretion.

This is colloquially known as justice.

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