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Wednesday, January 28, 2015
CIA Pushes to Demolish Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling
A jury on Monday found former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling guilty on nine counts of unauthorized disclosure of national security information. Though many view Sterling as a whistleblower for reportedly leaking to New York Times reporter James Risen classified information about an agency scheme to give faulty nuclear weapons plans to Iranian agents, government prosecutors brought in high-profile witnesses such as former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to bolster their arguments that he committed espionage and severely damaged national security.
The Obama administration, despite promises to be “the most transparent administration ever,” the executive branch has led an unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers and those who leak information about national security matters to journalists without government approval.
While prosecutors showed that Risen and Sterling contacted one another dozens of times, Pollack said that nothing the government presented to the jury showed that the two had discussed any classified information. Defense attorneys argued that Capitol Hill staffers who had been briefed on the operation were more likely to be the source of the leak because some of the information in Risen’s book addressed things that happened after Sterling left the CIA, the Washington Post reported.
Earlier in the trial, a CIA manager testified that more than 90 people in the government knew about the covert Iran mission.
Sterling worked for the CIA from 1993-2002 and served as a case officer on the Iran Task Force. Sterling left Iran in 1999 after his supervisor failed to assign him any new cases because according to Sterling, he was told that as “big black guy,” he “stuck out.” In April 2000, he filed a complaint with the CIA’s Equal Employment Opportunity office. In January 2002, his contract was terminated while the CIA fought to reject his discrimination lawsuit under the doctrine of state secrets privilege. “The federal district court in New York rejected the government’s assertion of the privilege; but, once the case was transferred to Virginia [per the government’s request], the government reasserted the privilege and prevailed.”
Obama administration’s Department of Justice arrested ex-CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling on January 6, 2011, for leaking information about the agency’s botched attempt under President Clinton to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. He is charged with passing the information to New York Times’ reporter James Risen, continuing, as the Washington Post put it, “the Obama administration’s unprecedented crackdown on the flow of government secrets to the media. Sterling was charged with 10 felony counts, including obstruction of justice and unauthorized disclosure of national defense information.”
The Obama administration has faced criticism from First Amendment and whistleblower groups for dramatically ramping up such prosecutions, which were exceedingly rare before President Barack Obama took office.
Obama’s “change.gov” website praises whistleblowers. “Such acts of courage and patriotism,” it says , “should be encouraged rather than stifled.” Yet in April 2010, Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder renewed Risen’s subpoena, asking for the same information. U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema granted Risen’s motion to quash the subpoena (without public explanation). Nonetheless, the Justice Department arrested Sterling on January 6, 2011. In February, federal prosecutors turned over evidence to the defense, which included an orgy of surveillance on James Risen, including his bank, credit, telephone, and even airline records. Politico reported :
The CIA seems virtually obsessed with trying to refute the negative portrayal of Operation Merlin — the CIA’s effort 15 years ago to provide a flawed nuclear weapon design to Iran — in James Risen’s 2006 book State of War.
In February 2000, the CIA hired a Russian scientist to deliver flawed blueprints for a nuclear weapon to the Iranian government. The CIA hoped that the blueprints contained enough real information to fool Iran into building an inoperable weapon. Unfortunately for the CIA, the Russian noticed the flaws. Rather than call off the mission, the CIA allowed him to move forward. He became so nervous, however, that he included a note with the plans alerting the Iranians to the flaw. In other words, due to the real information included in the blueprints, the plan may have completely backfired and actually helped Iran’s nuclear program.
Judging from testimony at the trial, the harshest investigative spotlight shines on those seen as malcontents. The head of the CIA press office, William Harlow, indicated that Sterling (who is African American) became a quick suspect in the Operation Merlin leak case because he’d previously filed a suit charging the agency with racial bias.
Sterling’s other transgressions against a de facto code of silence included his visit to Capitol Hill when he spilled classified beans to Senate oversight committee staffers.
“In the Sterling case, federal prosecutors seem to want to have it both ways,” McGovern observed. “They want to broaden the case to burnish the CIA’s reputation regarding its covert-op skills but then to narrow the case if defense attorneys try to show the jury the broader context in which the ‘Merlin’ disclosures were made in 2006 — how President George W. Bush’s administration was trying to build a case for war with Iran over its nuclear program much as it did over Iraq’s non-existent WMDs in 2002-2003.”
Along the way, the CIA is eager to use the trial as much as possible for image damage control, trying to ascend high ground that has eroded in part due to high-quality journalistic accounts of the sort that Risen provided in his State of War reporting on Operation Merlin.
The CIA is on a quest for more respect — from news media, from lawmakers, from potential recruits — from anyone willing to defer to its authority, no matter how legally hypocritical or morally absent. Demolishing the life of Jeffrey Sterling is just another means to that end.