Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was sentenced to 3½ years in prison Monday for leaking information about an agency scheme to give Iran bogus nuclear technology. Sterling was convicted in January of nine counts of violating the 1917 Espionage Act by “unauthorized disclosure of national defense information.”
He was accused of being the source for New York Times’ reporter James Risen’s 2006 book State of War, which detailed a 2000 operation in which the CIA had a former Russian nuclear scientist code-named Merlin give Iran designs for atomic weapons that would never work. Risen concluded that the operation had been a failure and may have advanced Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
Federal Judge Leonie M. Brinkema said there had to be “a price to be paid” for knowingly revealing intelligence secrets, but gave Sterling a much lighter sentence than the 19-24 years the prosecution sought. Still, the penalty he got was much heavier than the two years’ probation and $100,000 fine given to former CIA director General David Petraeus last month after he pleaded guilty to revealing classified information.
“It’s really the continuation of a war on whistleblowing and journalism; to clamp down on the absolutely essential flow of information for democracy,” journalist and media critic Norman Solomon told Democracy Now! on May 12. “The Obama administration continues its war on the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendment, on journalism and on whistleblowing, and the courtroom sentencing yesterday was part of the attack on our freedom and liberties, really.”
Sterling was arrested in 2011, but the trial was delayed for almost four years while the Justice Department attempted to get Risen to testify against him, threatening the reporter with jail if he refused to reveal his source. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder eventually relented. Instead, the prosecution used circumstantial metadata, evidence that Sterling and Risen had had regular contact by phone and e-mail.
Prosecutors accused Sterling, one of the CIA’s few Afro-American agents, of leaking the information for spite, because he had unsuccessfully sued the agency for racial discrimination. His suit was dismissed on the grounds that it might reveal state secrets. Sterling denied this. He told Democracy Now! that he had spoken to the Senate Intelligence Committee about Operation Merlin, because he was concerned that “it could have an impact—a negative impact—on our soldiers going into Iraq.”
“If the word retaliation is not thought of when anyone looks at the experience that I’ve had with the agency, then I just think you’re not looking,” he added.
“They’re trying to make an example of Sterling,” CIA agent turned antiwar activist Ray McGovern told Democracy Now!. “I don’t know whether he did it or not, but whoever did it, did a service to our country, because our country needs to know.” McGovern described Operation Merlin as “a cockamamie, harebrained scheme developed by covert action operators who had lots of money.”
“I was deeply concerned because this was not just a sensitive program, but it was one of the only levers that we believed we had, that the President had, to try to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program,” former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testified. Judge Brinkema sustained objections by the prosecution when the defense tried to question her about the Bush administration’s false claims that Saddam Hussein’s regime was developing nuclear weapons, one of the justifications for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Writing in the Nation May 12, Solomon described the prosecution as “often fixated on insisting that Operation Merlin was a nearly perfect program implemented by a nearly perfect agency,” while Sterling had had “a very bad attitude in addition to doing a very bad thing. Hour after hour, he stood accused of wrongly disparaging the CIA’s über-wise competence—legally to Senate Intelligence Committee staffers, and then illegally to the world, via Risen.” “What passed for incriminating proof amounted to nothing more than circumstantial evidence in the form of metadata about e-mails and phone calls…. The circumstantial evidence, implying that Sterling had ‘caused’ the release of such information, was enough,” Solomon wrote. “The not-so-subtle gist: Telling a journalist anything that might lead to coverage of classified information could be a basis for prosecution and conviction. The Sterling case stands as a calculated warning to government employees that Espionage Act charges could result from assisting any journalist for a story that might wind up reporting classified information.”