Guilty Verdict for CIA Agent Called 'New Low' in War on Whistleblowers

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Guilty Verdict for CIA Agent Called 'New Low' in War on Whistleblowers

As case grounded 'largely on circumstantial evidence' results in guilty verdict, advocates for Jeffrey Sterling say government has gone too far

Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, left, leaves the Alexandria Federal Courthouse on Jan. 26 with his wife Holly, center, and attorney Barry Pollack, after being convicted on all nine counts he faced of leaking classified information to a reporter. (Photo: Kevin Wolf/AP)

Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, left, leaves the Alexandria Federal Courthouse on Jan. 26 with his wife Holly, center, and attorney Barry Pollack, after being convicted on all nine counts he faced of leaking classified information to a reporter. (Photo: Kevin Wolf/AP)

Jeffery Sterling, the former CIA agent who tried to blow the whistle on an "ill-conceived, poorly executed and reckless" agency effort to provide flawed nuclear plans to Iran, was found guilty of espionage by a federal jury on Monday in a case that Sterling's advocates say is just the latest example of the Obama adminstration's unprecedented attack on unauthorized leaks and whistleblowers.

"The Sterling case – especially in light of Obama’s complicity in the cover-up of torture during the Bush administration – sends a clear message to people in government service: You won’t get in trouble as long as you do what you’re told (even torture people). But if you talk to a reporter and tell him something we want kept secret, we will spare no effort to destroy you." —Dan Froomkin, The InterceptSterling, found guilty on nine separate counts, was accused by the Department of Justice of leaking details of the CIA plan—known as Operation Merlin— to New York Times reporter James Risen and much of the initial intrigue surrounding the case centered on Risen's refusal to acknowledge whether or not the CIA agent was, in fact, his source for the reporting that appeared in his 2006 book, State of War. In the end, Risen maintained his refusal to testify for or against Sterling and the Justice Department dropped their efforts to force his testimony.

As the New York Times reported, "The Justice Department had no direct proof that Mr. Sterling, who managed the Iranian operation, provided the information to Mr. Risen, but prosecutors stitched together a strong circumstantial case."

The Washington Post characterized the guilty verdicts "as a significant win for federal prosecutors and a presidential administration that has worked zealously to root out leakers."

While U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called Sterling's conviction the "just and appropriate outcome," critics of the government's case pilloried the entire ordeal. Sterling was allowed to return home until sentencing in the case is rendered on April 24.

Sterling’s attorney, Edward B. MacMahon Jr., said he would seek to get the verdict thrown out and, failing that, file an appeal.

"We’re obviously very saddened by the jury’s verdict," MacMahon told the Times in in a telephone interview. "We continue to believe in Jeffrey’s innocence, and we’re going to continue to fight for him up to the highest levels."

According to the Times:

Liberal advocacy groups have hailed Mr. Sterling as a whistle-blower for taking his concerns about the program to the Senate Intelligence Committee in early 2003, a time when dissenting voices in the C.I.A. were hushed as the country prepared for war in Iraq. The Justice Department and C.I.A., however, deny that characterization. They said that the Iran operation had not been mismanaged and that Mr. Sterling had gone to Congress and then the news media as a way to settle personal grievances.

Asked for her reaction to the Sterling's conviction by FireDogLake's Kevin Gosztola, Jesselyn Radack, a Justice Department whistleblower, attorney and director of the Government Accountability Project’s National Security and Human Rights Division, said the prosecution and conviction of Sterling represents "a new low in the war in whistleblowers and government hypocrisy."

Sterling, Radack continued, "was convicted in a purely circumstantial case of ‘leaking.’ It shows how far an embarrassed government will go to punish those who dare to commit the truth."

According to journalist Marcy Wheeler, who has covered the case extensively for ExposeFacts.org and sat through nearly the entire trial, the government's case was striking for being strong on rhetoric but slim on actual facts. On Monday, after closing arguments had been made, Wheeler wrote:

[Few] who haven’t sat through the trial realize just how circumstantial the evidence on most of the charges against Sterling is.

The only evidence of phone calls between Sterling and James Risen immediately before Risen went to the CIA with a fully drafted story on the Merlin operation consists of 2 minutes and 40 seconds of calls, total, across 7 phone calls. Then there’s one email in which Sterling sent Risen a link to an unclassified article on Iran posted by CNN.

Two minutes and 40 seconds for what would likely have been a 1000-word story?

Indeed, in discussions immediately after the closing arguments, even Judge Brinkema acknowledged how circumstantial the case is. Ed MacMahon tried to get all the charges thrown out on venue grounds — because, after all, the prosecution only presented evidence that Sterling and Risen had spoken, on any topic, for 2 minutes and 40 seconds in the state of Virginia.

That’s it.

Norman Solomon, Wheeler's colleague at ExposeFacts.org and who has also covered the trial closely, explained to Common Dreams in an email how one of the most striking things about the media coverage of the Sterling case was just how little of it there was.

"One of the most powerful forms of propaganda from corporate media is silence, and that has been a major dynamic in the sparse coverage of Jeffrey Sterling," Solomon said. "Few media outlets have gone beyond handouts and rhetoric from the government."

In his latest dispatch about the trial, published Tuesday, Solomon referred to Sterling as an "Invisible Man"—invoking the famous book by Ralph Ellison—as he lamented the scant attention his case has received. "While press-freedom groups and some others gradually rallied around Risen’s right to source confidentiality," Solomon wrote, "Sterling remained the Invisible Man."

Though many mainstream outlets have now covered the verdict of trial, Solomon observed that very few have shown deep understanding of the case. "Under such conditions," he continued, "progressive outlets should go out of their way to inform people long before a trial starts. Otherwise, as happened on Monday, a verdict comes down and most people—even those who want to support whistleblowers—don't have the background understanding to put the verdict in context. We're playing catch-up when we should have been ahead of the prosecution curve."

Following the guilty verdict on Monday, Gosztola offered this analysis:

What will likely be most remembered about Sterling’s case is how the government relentlessly pursued Risen for about seven years before buckling under pressure and deciding they would not force him to testify against his alleged source.

Collateral damage was done to journalism in the process of the government’s leak prosecution. The government collected records from Risen’s personal and professional communications, which significantly impacted his ability to do his job as a reporter.

The prosecution of Sterling once more solidified the government’s ability to wield the Espionage Act as a sledgehammer to come down hard on government employees, who dare to challenge the government’s intelligence or “national security” programs by disclosing information to the press.

Placing the conviction of Sterling in the context of the Obama administration's refusal to hold anyone at the CIA or in the former Bush administration accountable for the agency's torture program, The Intercept's Dan Froomkin argues the case speaks volumes about the duplicity of the White House and the Justice Department when it comes to prosecuting alleged misconduct by government officials.

"The Sterling case – especially in light of Obama’s complicity in the cover-up of torture during the Bush administration," writes Froomkin, "sends a clear message to people in government service: You won’t get in trouble as long as you do what you’re told (even torture people). But if you talk to a reporter and tell him something we want kept secret, we will spare no effort to destroy you."

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