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Podcast: Journalist Marcy Wheeler Reports on Trial Against Former CIA Officer Jeffrey Sterling for Alleged Leak

Marcy Wheeler

A jury continues to deliberate on a verdict in the trial against former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who is accused of leaking details about a CIA operation that involved a Russian asset, who secretly provided Iran with flawed blueprints for a nuclear weapon. The government claims he leaked the details to New York Times journalist James Risen.

The government initially charged Sterling with committing ten felonies, seven of which fall under the Espionage Act. The other charges include mail fraud and obstruction of justice. The mail fraud charge he faced was dismissed by the judge last week.

The jury has already asked Judge Leonie Brinkema some substantive questions about elements of the charges.

Marcy Wheeler, one of the only journalists who has been covering this leak trial each day as it has unfolded, appears on “Unauthorized Disclosure” this week. Her reports have been published by http://www.exposefacts.org“>ExposeFacts.org.

Sterling is known to have blown the whistle on this operation called “Operation Merlin” through proper channels in the government. The government’s prosecution, Wheeler explains, has been a “farce” when it considering the damage done to press freedom. She explains why Sterling probably should have been put on trial in Missouri and not Virginia. She also offers a recap of the arguments in the case, what the government claims about Sterling and what the defense has said to rebut what amounts to largely circumstantial evidence.

During the discussion portion of the show, hosts Kevin Gosztola and Rania Khalek talk about the fawning over a dead tyrant, King Abdullah and Speaker John Boehner inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to provide a rebuttal to the State of the Union. The first book published by a Guantanamo prisoner is highlighted, with excerpts read on air. And Khalek discusses her efforts to expose the propaganda in the film, “American Sniper.”

The podcast is available on iTunes for download. For a link (and also to download the episode), go here. Click on “go here” and a page will load with the audio file of the podcast. The file will automatically start playing so you can listen to the episode.

Also, below is a player for listening to the podcast. You can listen to the podcast this way or you can go to iTunes and find the podcast listed there.

{!hitembed ID=”hitembed_1″ width=”500″ height=”360″ align=”none” !}

Below is a partial transcript of the interview with Wheeler. It is edited for clarity in parts.

GOSZTOLA: You wrote about this when summing up the closing arguments. What story is the prosecution telling the jury and what is the defense saying to counter that story?

WHEELER: The unauthorized disclosure is about the CIA information in Chapter 9 of James Risen’s State of War. He told this story about how the CIA enlisted this Russian to basically give nuclear blueprints to the Iranians. Risen had been told—and I think there actually was evidence submitted at trial—that there were problems with the operation, partly that the Russian believed that they were good plans and then looked at the plans and thought this was never going to work, which made case officer Jeffrey Sterling worried and then the Russian went to Vienna to hand the documents over to Iran he bungled it.

There actually is reason to be concerned about us dealing these blueprints to Iran. But the CIA doesn’t think so. The CIA thinks they did a really good thing.

First Risen had a story that the New York Times was going to publish in 2003. Condoleezza Rice had that [squashed]. Then he came out with his book in 2006. And the government is convinced that Jeffrey Sterling is pretty much the only source for this chapter although that’s not possible.

The problem is that the government has no evidence that. The best piece of evidence is that some language from Sterling’s performance review shows up in the chapter. Now he has a copy of the performance review that is unclassified so he could give that to Risen without any problems. The government argues that he would have to had to explain to Risen that these lines from the performance review are about Merlin, are about this operation.

The defense has said, well, look the FBI’s first suspects are the Senate intelligence committee because Sterling did go to them and say I’ve got concerns about this and they leak all the time. And here are the other people, and here’s some stuff that could have only come from Merlin. So the defense has basically said here are all these other people that could have told Risen, some of whom the FBI didn’t even investigate. For example, the Senate intelligence committee refused to cooperate, and so the guy Bill Harlow suspected from the start, his records were never collected and so on.

But the narrative they’re telling—The government is saying Jeffrey Sterling was furious because he had a discrimination suit and publication review board suit. He lost those and so he retaliated by going to the press with this story about an operation that was a really tremendous success, which he claimed was a failure. He pitched it as a failure just so that Risen would actually publish.

The defense is basically saying there is no evidence. The [government has] the performance review that I told you about. They have records of phone calls between Risen and Sterling, but even the phone calls, some of them time-wise make no sense for Sterling to have been a source for the book or the story. And I think the defense has shown that Risen got the story, went to the CIA, CIA said don’t publish, spent three more weeks working on the story and then came back with far more evidence. So, it’s clear that he had more sources and the government doesn’t want to talk about that.

But, ultimately, the government finally said this is about patriots, the secret CIA people who keep us safe. Jeffrey Sterling is no patriot. He betrayed these patriots so find him guilty. They’re reverting to this good and evil, patriots, betrayal and so on.

GOSZTOLA: Yeah, it’s a very primal pathos. That’s the sort of vitriol they had for Chelsea Manning. So I am not surprised that you could deploy that.

WHEELER: It’s familiar.

GOSZTOLA: And that how they used it against Kiriakou too. So, now, I know you were covering how essentially this trial is happening in Alexandria, Virginia, in the Eastern District and this is probably the wrong venue for this prosecution to be taking place.

WHEELER: Right, even if we assume that Jeffrey Sterling is a source for Risen, the government, because they have no actual evidence, they can’t prove—I mean, Sterling was a source for Risen in 1992 when he was still living in New York.

Sterling lost his access to the information about Merlin in 2000. So, the government can’t prove that if there was a leak that it happened in 2000, 2002, 2003 or 2004. And starting in late 2003, Sterling moved back to Missouri where he is from. On some of their most substantive evidence, he was in Missouri. Risen was in DC or Maryland, either at work or at home. There was no tie to Virginia.

Even worse, they kind of—as they do in these cases—tack on an obstruction of justice charge and I think they did it just in case the jury objected to all the espionage charges and wanted to find him guilty of something. But the problem is his actions in that alleged obstruction of justice charge are that he deleted an email to Risen and deleted it sometime between April and July 2006. He was in Missouri. Risen was in Maryland. The server for the emails was in Washington, presumably. And therefore there was absolutely no action taking place in Virginia.

One of the first questions asked by the jury was what about venue in obstruction so I suspect they already threw that one out on venue. And then the question is whether they believe they have any evidence that anything else happened while he was in Virginia.

GOSZTOLA: And so what’s this absurd thing about the hairdresser that testified because I think that’s rather wild?

WHEELER: Yeah, so they don’t have any proof that anything happened in Virginia. They’re making two arguments to claim that something happened in Virginia.

One is they claim that Sterling had a document and handed it to Risen some time. They don’t know when. And they claim that because they found four documents in Sterling’s house when they searched it in 2006 that were classified, sort of, that means that if he ever had classified documents he store them at home. And they claim that since he lived in Virginia before he lived in Missouri, the fact that they found four sort of classified documents at his home in 2006—

Now these classified documents, three of them pertain to dialing the CIA using rotary phones. They date to 1987. They probably were retroactively classified, shades of the Thomas Drake case. So this is what they’re building that argument on. The other of the documents is his first performance review when he was a trainee, which he wasn’t doing anything. So that’s one argument for getting venue in the absence of not having any evidence.

The other argument is they want to argue that by selling books, by conspiring to get books with this story sold in Virginia, Sterling committed an act in Virginia. But they also wanted to prove that somebody who didn’t have clearance had access to the story in Virginia and years ago the FBI officer, who investigated this, Ashley Hunt, saw the book on her hairdresser’s station.

Very recently the FBI officer reached out to her hairdresser and said could you please come testify that you got the book. So this really lovely hairdresser woman comes in. She’s beautiful, very joyful and such a break from the gloom and doom national security people who had come through. She said yeah, I read every chapter. But then the judge in the case, who I think herself is dubious of venue, says where’d you get the book? She said I don’t. Borders or Barnes and Noble, but she didn’t get where Judge Brinkema was going.

And then Judge Brinkema was like, no, where did you buy it? Was it Arlington? Alexandria? Well, probably Alexandria, but you know it might have been Bowie, Maryland, because that’s where my boyfriend lives. So they put on this witness and she may not have bought the book there.

GOSZTOLA: I remember from covering the Manning trial that one of the things that was the most fascinating was when the kind of secrecy games would be played when the government was paranoid or was hiding information that was critical to their case and some of the restrictions that had been put in place. And I know there were some similar restrictions put in place in the Sterling trial. Can you talk about those?

WHEELER: One of the things they did is they had something like 5 or 6 CIA witnesses so they had a big screen placed up so that all of those witnesses, some of them who are about as secret as Alfreda Bikowsky—Their identities are known but we’re going through the theater of it.

They testified under their name and first initial of their last name and they testified behind the screen.

One of the most interesting things, and I am going to write a piece on this today. Not for secrecy reasons but for—In fact, I am going to have to go back and read about this. One of the things that the protection order covered is that—

Sterling, remember, he sued the CIA for equal opportunity discrimination in New York and the CIA succeeded in changing, as they did here, to Virginia, which put him in a much less favorable position. And then, in both places, they invoked state secrets and his case got thrown out on state secrets grounds. And he appealed it. He appealed it all the way to the Supreme Court.

The defense is not allowed to tell the jury that’s why Sterling’s case got thrown out because the CIA was declaring state secrets over the very same performance reviews that the government is relying on to prove that Jeffrey Sterling was the source for Risen.

CommunityThe Dissenter

Podcast: Journalist Marcy Wheeler Reports on Trial Against Former CIA Officer Jeffrey Sterling for Alleged Leak

Marcy Wheeler

A jury continues to deliberate on a verdict in the trial against former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who is accused of leaking details about a CIA operation that involved a Russian asset, who secretly provided Iran with flawed blueprints for a nuclear weapon. The government claims he leaked the details to New York Times journalist James Risen.

The government initially charged Sterling with committing ten felonies, seven of which fall under the Espionage Act. The other charges include mail fraud and obstruction of justice. The mail fraud charge he faced was dismissed by the judge last week.

The jury has already asked Judge Leonie Brinkema some substantive questions about elements of the charges.

Marcy Wheeler, one of the only journalists who has been covering this leak trial each day as it has unfolded, appears on “Unauthorized Disclosure” this week. Her reports have been published by http://www.exposefacts.org“>ExposeFacts.org.

Sterling is known to have blown the whistle on this operation called “Operation Merlin” through proper channels in the government. The government’s prosecution, Wheeler explains, has been a “farce” when it considering the damage done to press freedom. She explains why Sterling probably should have been put on trial in Missouri and not Virginia. She also offers a recap of the arguments in the case, what the government claims about Sterling and what the defense has said to rebut what amounts to largely circumstantial evidence.

During the discussion portion of the show, hosts Kevin Gosztola and Rania Khalek talk about the fawning over a dead tyrant, King Abdullah and Speaker John Boehner inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to provide a rebuttal to the State of the Union. The first book published by a Guantanamo prisoner is highlighted, with excerpts read on air. And Khalek discusses her efforts to expose the propaganda in the film, “American Sniper.”

The podcast is available on iTunes for download. For a link (and also to download the episode), go here. Click on “go here” and a page will load with the audio file of the podcast. The file will automatically start playing so you can listen to the episode.

Also, below is a player for listening to the podcast. You can listen to the podcast this way or you can go to iTunes and find the podcast listed there.

{!hitembed ID=”hitembed_1″ width=”500″ height=”360″ align=”none” !} (more…)

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."