By David Ingram
ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (Reuters) - A former Central Intelligence Agency officer is expected to spend 2 1/2 years in prison for telling a journalist the name of a covert agent, marking the first time in 27 years that someone will go to prison for blowing the cover of a CIA agent.
John Kiriakou, 48, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to one count of disclosing the identity of a covert agent.
Kiriakou revealed the agent's name in a 2008 email, one of many instances in which he helped journalists with information on activities such as waterboarding and the CIA's interrogation of al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah.
The guilty plea closes one of six prosecutions the Obama administration has pursued in an aggressive campaign against alleged leakers of classified information.
His Justice Department has prosecuted more leak cases than all previous administrations combined, according to tallies by multiple news organizations.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema called the expected 2 1/2-year sentence "reasonable under the circumstances" and noted it was the same sentence that a judge gave to former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby in 2007 in another case of blown CIA cover.
A jury convicted Libby of perjury in a case about who revealed the identity of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame, whose husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, had criticized the Iraq war. President George W. Bush commuted Libby's term, sparing him from prison.
The most recent successful prosecution of a CIA agent's outing was in 1985, when Sharon Scranage, stationed in Ghana, pleaded guilty to passing information to a boyfriend with ties to the Ghanaian government.
AGENT'S NAME TURNED UP IN COURT PAPERS
In 2004, Kiriakou retired from the CIA. By 2007, he was speaking publicly - including on television - about waterboarding and his participation in Zubaydah's interrogation.
The U.S. government then began investigating Kiriakou in a wide-ranging leak probe. They had a breakthrough when the covert agent's name turned up in court papers written by defense lawyers for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Kiriakou was to go on trial next month on the disclosure allegation and four other charges. When the charges were made public in January, he said he was not guilty.
But this month, Brinkema ruled that to win a conviction at trial, the government was not required to prove that Kiriakou intended to harm the United States.
Kiriakou made a deal with prosecutors and switched his plea to guilty on the single count in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
CIA Director David Petraeus hailed the conviction as a victory for necessary secrecy.
"Oaths do matter, and there are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above the laws that protect our fellow officers," Petraeus said in a statement he said was aimed at CIA employees.
Kiriakou maintained he was not motivated by disloyalty to the United States or by benefiting himself, his lawyer Robert Trout said.
"Nothing in today's plea diminishes the importance of John's service or the value of his contribution to our nation's security. He would never do anything with the intent to hurt his country," Trout said in a statement to reporters.
Prosecutors were unapologetic in defending CIA secrets. "Leaks of highly sensitive, closely held and classified information compromise national security and can put individual lives in danger," U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said in a statement.
BINDING PLEA DEAL
Kiriakou briefly lashed out at prosecutors during a 30-minute court hearing on Tuesday.
He told Brinkema that prosecutors required him to describe in court papers too much of his contact with journalists, with the coauthor of a memoir about Kiriakou's life as a CIA agent, and with FBI agents.
The information, he said, was inflammatory and irrelevant to the one leak charge to which he pleaded guilty.
The judge partly agreed, calling the information in court papers "window dressing." But she said it would not affect his sentence.
In exchange for the change of plea, prosecutors agreed to drop the four other charges and to limit Kiriakou's prison sentence to 2 1/2 years.
The sentence is binding under the terms of a deal between Kiriakou's lawyers and prosecutors, but Brinkema scheduled a formal sentencing hearing for January.
The maximum penalty Kiriakou faced under federal law for the one charge was 10 years.
Trout told Brinkema that prosecutors offered Kiriakou a plea agreement before he was indicted, but that the offer was rejected.
"In my judgment, it was not as favorable" as the offer Kiriakou accepted on Tuesday, Trout said. He did not disclose details.
Kiriakou would serve his sentence in a minimum-security prison camp in Pennsylvania if the U.S. Bureau of Prisons agrees to the arrangement between defense lawyers and prosecutors.
Kiriakou also agreed to a $250,000 fine.
(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Howard Goller, Jackie Frank and Stacey Joyce)