Does the name Jeffrey Sterling sound familiar? It should. Sterling is the former CIA officer who was convicted in late January of violating the Espionage Act. Sterling, 47, was accused of giving journalist James Risen “classified information about U.S. plans to spoil Iran’s nuclear program…” Sterling is supposedly the source “that helped Risen drag a bizarre CIA project called Operation Merlin out of hiding behind the label ‘classified.'”
Sterling was reportedly fired from the CIA in 2002–and indicted for espionage in 2011. Sterling could possibly face dozens of years in prison. He is due to be sentenced in April.
Matt Apuzzo (New York Times) said that Sterling’s conviction was “a significant victory for the Obama administration, which has conducted an unprecedented crackdown on officials who speak to journalists about security matters without the administration’s approval.” Risen refused to identify his sources.
“The case revolved around a C.I.A. operation in which a former Russian scientist provided Iran with intentionally flawed nuclear component schematics. Mr. Risen revealed the operation in his 2006 book “State of War,” describing it as a mismanaged, potentially reckless mission that may have inadvertently aided the Iranian nuclear program.”
After Sterling’s conviction, his lawyer, Barry Pollack, said, “It is a sad day for Mr. Sterling and his wife. We will be filing motions to set aside the verdict and file an appeal.”
Several days before Sterling was convicted, Norman Solomon wrote an interesting article about the former CIA officer for Huffington Post titled Why the CIA Is So Eager to Demolish Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling. (Note: Solomon is the author of the book War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.)
Solomon said that the CIA’s reputation “needs a lift” after rolling “downhill at an accelerating pace in the dozen years since telling President George W. Bush what he wanted the nation to hear about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.” Solomon added, “That huge bloody blot on the agency’s record has not healed since then, inflamed by such matters as drone strikes, rendition of prisoners to torture-happy regimes and resolute protection of its own torturers.”
CIA sensibilities about absolution and prosecution are reflected in the fact that a former head of the CIA’s clandestine service, Jose Rodriguez Jr., suffered no penalty for destroying numerous videotapes of torture interrogations by the agency — which knew from the start that the torture was illegal.
But in the courtroom, day after day, with patriotic piety, CIA witnesses — most of them screened from public view to keep their identities secret — have testified to their reverence for legality.
In the process, the CIA is airing soiled threads of its dirty laundry as never before in open court. The agency 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.
Reporting for Expose Facts, investigative journalist Marcy Wheeler said that during Sterling’s trial, witness after witness “made claims about how closely held the program was.”
“More closely held than any other program,” Walter C, a physicist who worked on the program described. “More closely held,” David Shedd, currently head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and head of Counterproliferation Operations until just after the Merlin op.
Of course, Bob S’ admission that — when FBI showed him a list, in 2003, of 90 people cleared into the program, he said it was incomplete — suggests all those claims are overstated.
Wheeler continued by saying that “details of just how careless the CIA was with Merlin’s identity raise further questions about claims that the operation — and especially Merlin’s identity — was closely held.” She noted that the thing that struck her most was “the revelation (Exhibit 17) that for months and months, Merlin was pitching his nuclear experience to Iran on an AOL account shared with his wife and kids. In the cable describing a January 12, 1999 meeting with Merlin (what appears to be the first where the two met alone) Sterling explained that Merlin had just opened a separate Hotmail account to use for his CIA spying.”
“[M] also opened another email account through Hotmail. [M] opened the new account so his family, who also utilizes his AOL account, cannot access his email related to the project.”
That means from at least April 15, 1998 (see Exhibit 8, though Exhibit 16 suggests the effort started in November 1997), when Merlin started trying to make contact with Iranians who might be interested in a Russian nuclear scientist, until January 1999, Merlin’s contacts with Iran were completely accessible to his wife (who, given the evidence — as opposed to the sworn claims — presented in the trial, almost certainly knew anyway) and his kids (who may not have).
Wheeler goes on to explain other security lapses with the CIA operation. She said it was ultimately the “loose operational security — and Merlin’s backlash to it” that appeared “to be one of the things that led Merlin to botch the operation…”
Last fall, Solomon and Wheeler co-authored an article for The Nation titled The Government War Against Reporter James Risen. The article’s subtitle–The vendetta against him and whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling reflects an antidemocratic goal: the uninformed consent of the governed.
Solomon and Wheeler noted that Jeffrey Sterling was usually “cast as a disgruntled ex-employee in trouble for allegedly spilling the classified beans” in news reports.
Solomon and Wheeler:
But the standard media narratives about Risen and Sterling have skipped over deep patterns of government retaliation against recalcitrant journalists and whistleblowers. Those patterns are undermining press freedom, precluding the informed consent of the governed and hiding crucial aspects of US foreign policy. The recent announcement of Eric Holder’s resignation as attorney general has come after nearly five years of the Obama administration extending and intensifying the use of the Justice Department for retribution against investigative journalism and whistleblowing.
Solomon and Wheeler also noted the role that John Brennan–the current Director of the CIA–had played in Sterling’s departure from the CIA years ago. They said that in 2000, “Sterling filed a discrimination complaint within the agency, asserting that he had been denied certain assignments because of his race. (Sterling was one of the CIA’s few African-American officers.) Brennan, as deputy executive director, was involved in rejecting Sterling’s claim. Sterling responded by suing the CIA; he was fired in 2002. The CIA rebuffed a number of settlement offers and then won dismissal of the entire lawsuit in 2004 after claiming that the litigation would expose state secrets.”
Retired CIA Analyst Ray McGovern (Consortiumnews.com):
But the real subtext of the Sterling case is how the politicization of the CIA’s analytical division over the past several decades has contributed to multiple intelligence failures, especially efforts to “prove” that targeted regimes in the Middle East were amassing weapons of mass destruction.
The false Iraq-WMD case provided the key rationale for a war that has spread devastation not only across Iraq but has prompted terrorism and other violence throughout the Middle East and into Europe. “Operation Merlin” – hatched during the Clinton administration – was part of a similar effort to show that Iran was engaged in an active program for building a nuclear bomb and thus would have interest in the flawed schematics that the CIA was peddling.
Yet, in the Sterling case, federal prosecutors seem to want to have it both ways. 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.
Solomon–in his Huffington Post article:
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.
And the CIA wants a very harsh prison sentence to serve as a warning to others.
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.
CIA Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling Convicted of Espionage (The Real News speaks with Marcy Wheeler)
I wonder what’s going to happen to former CIA Director General David Petraeus. Do think he’ll also be prosecuted for disclosing classified information to his lover Paula Broadwell?
Why the CIA Is So Eager to Demolish Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling (Huffington Post)
Criminal Wrongdoing and the CIA (Huffington Post)
C.I.A. Officer Is Found Guilty in Leak Tied to Times Reporter (New York Times)
‘Justice’ Hidden Behind a Screen (Consortiumnews.com)