In American culture, at least, there are consequences when the government adopts and is exposed as using a double standard.
Those who don’t get the better deal are understandably and properly bitter. Those who got the sweet deal are defensive and their credibility suffers still more damages. And Americans as a group lose just a little more confidence in the fundamental fairness of government.
Those consequences are perfectly illustrated in the case of the disgraced General David Petraeus.
As WC has written earlier, General Petraeus got a sweetheart deal. A misdemeanor charge, no jail time and a modest fine, while Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, leaking highly classified information to his mistress-biographer as a part of a vanity biography project. And then lying to the FBI about it afterwards.
Jeffrey Sterling, is a former CIA official who was convicted earlier this year of leaking classified information to a New York Times reporter. In January, Sterling was convicted by a jury on nine criminal counts, including violations of the Espionage Act, for leaking classified information to Times reporter James Risen about a CIA effort to undermine Iran’s nuclear program. Sterling is scheduled to be sentenced in April. He faces a maximum sentence of decades in jail. In a statement after the verdict was announced, Attorney General Eric Holder called the guilty verdict a “just and appropriate outcome.”
Sterling’s lawyers have requested a reconsideration of his conviction because two former generals, David Petraeus and James Cartwright, have received far more lenient treatment for similar offenses. They argued,
The principal difference between Mr. Sterling and Generals Petraeus and Cartwright are their respective races and rank. Like General Cartwright, General Petraeus is a white, high ranking official … The government must explain why the justice meted out to white generals is so different from what Mr. Sterling faced.
Stephen Kim’s lawyer has asked for relief his client. Kim, an Asian-American expert on rogue nations, was sentenced to thirteen months in jail for talking to a Fox News reporter about a classified document. He was charged with felony violations of the Espionage Act, too. Now, his life has unravelled: a broken marriage, the young son who lived far away, the life savings that were now depleted, and the profound struggles with depression and thoughts of suicide. Kim changed his plea when he couldn’t afford to fight any longer. His lawyer would like the U.S. Attorney to let him out for time served. Like Sterling’s lawyer, the request is based on the shockingly different treatment of General Petraeus.
The only differences you can find between General Petraeus, Sterling and Kim is that Petraeus is a general, white and has very powerful friends. Sterling is African-American, Kim is Asian-American and neither is a general or has powerful friends.1 Senator Diane Feinstein (D, Allegedly California) famously announced that General Petraeus had “suffered enough.” So far as WC can tell, she hasn’t issued her opinion on Jeffrey Sterling or Stephen Kim.
So the first bad consequence is over-charging, over-convicting and over-sentencing victims, perhaps to “make and example out of them.”
The second bad consequences is a further diminution of the public’s trust and confidence of the justice system. Every time the U.S. government acts like this the “All men created equal” that is one of the cornerstones of our government is revealed to be a lie. Each time the lie is exposed, the cornerstone cracks just a little bit more. Our law, our ethos, pretends to hold our leaders to a higher standard. General Petraeus’s case demonstrates that’s not only untrue; it’s an inversion of reality.
Do you wonder that Edwin Snowden ran?
Nor are these the only instances of a double standard. Just the most recent.
In his inaugural address, President Obama announced his would be the most transparent administration in history. What it turns out he meant was that despite his best efforts to foster the least transparent administration, Chelsea Manning and Edwin Snowden have made it transparent. Maybe Sterling and Kim were punished out of frustration at Snowden’s escape. That would make it thrice wrong.
When the criminal justice system is seen as loaded against the average citizen, when income inequality is reaching record levels, when billionaires can buy elections; well, a thoughtful person worries. . .
- If we had a white president or Attorney General, you’d suspect racism. And no, WC won’t excuse this double standard as some “reverse racism” with the President and the Attorney General demonstrating how tough they are on minorities. ↩