By Elaine Magliaro
Last week, I posted a column about Jeffrey Sterling, the former CIA officer who was convicted in late January of violating the Espionage Act. Earlier this week, the BBC called the jury’s verdict “guilt by metadata.”
When a Washington, DC, area jury convicted Jeffrey Sterling of multiple counts of espionage, the smoking gun wasn’t a key bit of classified information found in the former CIA officer’s possession; it was a trail of phone calls and emails of unknown content.
The information about where those calls and emails went, however – to a New York Times journalist – was enough to convince a jury to send Sterling to prison for up to 80 years.
Norman Solomon–who covered Sterling’s 7-day trial–spoke with Democracy Now! on Thursday. Solomon said he thought Sterling’s case was an extremely important one–and that it had been seriously underreported by the news media.
An extremely important case, very underreported by the news media, a tremendous selective prosecution against one of the only African-American case officers in the CIA, somebody who went through channels as a whistleblower to the Senate Intelligence Committee to report in 2003 about a dumb and dangerous CIA operation aimed at Iran with nuclear design component information back in 2000. So, Sterling went on trial last month in federal court for revealing to the Senate Intelligence Committee something that the Senate Intelligence Committee needed to know, but the actual charges were, as you mentioned, that he leaked the classified info to James Risen. Being in the courtroom day after day for the seven-day trial, very disturbing, not only the selective prosecution, but also the fact no African Americans on the jury, 23 CIA officials testifying, and a tremendous amount of innuendo against the defendant in that case.
So, I really urge people to look into it more closely, because Jeffrey Sterling deserves support. All of the evidence presented by the prosecution was circumstantial. It was metadata, email and phone call metadata, without content of any incriminating nature. So the bottom line is, Jeffrey Sterling is facing a nine-count sentencing of federal felonies, up to 80 years in prison, on the basis of circumstantial evidence that is metadata.
The BBC noted that there were free speech advocates who covered Sterling’s case who warned “that while Risen has become a cause celebre among journalists, Sterling’s prosecution and conviction – which received much less coverage – could have a chilling effect on the willingness of government whistleblowers to share what they know.” The advocates claim that the CIA “sought to punish Sterling in part because he had told a Senate Intelligence Committee about his concerns with Merlin in 2003. Senate staffers, Sterling’s defence attorneys insisted, could have just as easily been the source of Risen’s reporting.”
Marcy Wheeler, an investigative reporter who covered Sterling’s trial, said that the US government had constructed a case “based purely on circumstantial evidence.” She added that the case had “set a dangerous precedent for free speech rights in the US.”
According to Wheeler, the conviction of Jeffrey Sterling “means the government can convict leakers without proving they revealed actual classified information.” Wheeler contended that the government “only need to show that a leak allowed a journalist to unearth national security secrets at some later date.” She said, “Sterling was convicted for the most part entirely on phone and email records with no content attached. There was no guarantee that it had to do with classified information.”
Vague hints and insinuations are part and parcel of the Washington trade in information, Wheeler says, as reporters with stories to write and government officials with agendas to drive engage in a symbiotic relationship in the corridors of power.
The BBC reported that Wheeler said that the “Justice Department had received ‘de facto approval’ to expand the reach of the Espionage Act – a World War 1 era law meant to target spies who help foreign governments – to include non-secret tips to reporters.”
Do you think Sterling’s case sets a dangerous precedent for free speech in this country?