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US Government: Former CIA Officer Jeffrey Sterling is ‘No Whistleblower,’ Deserves Lengthy Prison Sentence

A sentencing memo from the United States government submitted to a federal court on Monday argued former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling is “no whistleblower” and recommended that Sterling be given a severe and lengthy prison sentence. The appropriate range of nineteen and a half to twenty-four years was suggested.

During a January trial, the government managed to convince a jury, with largely circumstantial evidence, that Sterling leaked information about a top secret CIA operation in Iran called “Operation Merlin” to New York Times reporter James Risen, who published details on the operation in a chapter of his book, State of War. He was convicted by a jury of crimes, including multiple Espionage Act offenses.

“Operation Merlin” involved the passage of flawed nuclear blueprints to Iran in order to get them to work on building a nuclear weapon that would never function. Sterling, an African American, was a case officer assigned to the program.

Before Sterling was accused of leaking, he brought a claim against the CIA and alleged discrimination. He appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court in 2005. However, the government successfully had the case thrown out by invoking the “state secrets” privilege.

The government maintains that Sterling leaked the information in an act of revenge—to “settle a personal score” because he had his case thrown out.

“The evidence at trial laid to rest any doubt about whether the defendant’s actions, which he still denies, were motivated by a desire to expose government malfeasance,” the government argues in its sentencing memo [PDF]. “Nothing could be further from the truth. The trial in this case established exclusively that the defendant was no whistleblower. He had nothing to blow the whistle on, so he invented a rogue operation and cast himself as the hero.”

The government claims Sterling was “motivated by pure vindictiveness.” The jury found “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Sterling “made a calculated, deliberate and willful decision to sabotage a critical counterproliferation program out of sheer spite, in violation of his sworn duty as a former CIA case officer—and in violation of this country’s criminal law.” He “distorted” the information in order to “maximize the damage to the CIA as an institution.”

The fact that Risen’s book damaged the CIA’s reputation by showing that “Operation Merlin” was reckless and poorly conceived is of particular concern to the government. The sentencing recommendation is payback for Sterling’s decision to challenge the rectitude of “Operation Merlin.”

“The program was meticulously conceived and developed over a period of many years by the CIA, in consultation with this country’s foremost nuclear experts, including a team — led by Walt. C — at a national laboratory. It was reviewed, vetted, and approved by high-level officials in the United States government and used not only against Iran but other countries as well.”

The sentencing recommendation is largely premised on the flawed assertion that Iran has or has had a nuclear weapons program and so “Operation Merlin” was incredibly critical. But journalist Gareth Porter’s book, Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, meticulously shows Iran has never intended to develop nuclear weapons. There is next to no evidence that Iran has had a “nuclear weapons program,” despite the claims of US officials.

Nonetheless, President George W. Bush’s national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, convinced the Times to not publish a story from Risen on “Operation Merlin” in 2003 because the US had “very few options for disrupting and undermining the Iranian nuclear weapons program.” Rice contended that nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of “rogue states” if details of the CIA program were published. Of course, Rice’s testimony is only legitimate if Iran, in fact, had weapons in 2003.

The very fact that President Barack Obama is in the process of negotiating a deal between US and Iran to prevent the development of nuclear weapons strongly suggests that the “substantial damage” Sterling allegedly caused is grossly exaggerated. Moreover, there are no nuclear weapons floating around that may fall into the hands of “rogue states” because of what Risen published.

Even more significantly, the government’s sentencing memo highlights two Russian assets involved in the operation. Sterling was responsible for handling Merlin. “Both Merlin and his wife testified that they continue to live in constant fear as a result of the disclosure of Merlin’s involvement with the CIA in State of War.”

Was “Merlin’s” life really put in danger by Risen’s book?

Gareth Porter wrote:

During 1997 and 1998, while the false set of plans for the “fire set” was being created by experts at one of the national laboratories, “Merlin” was busy writing e-mails and letters to organizations and individuals in Iran who might have some interest in the subject. He was signing his own name and identifying himself accurately as having worked at the Soviet Arzamas 16 nuclear weapons laboratory.

While in the middle of the CIA mission itself, “Merlin” did not feel safe:

In February 1999, he fretted that some of the e-mails he had gotten back from his many attempts to make contact with someone who might be connected with nuclear matters may have come from Iranian intelligence. Merlin informed his handlers that he had twice gotten error messages telling him that intrusions had been detected on his Hotmail account. He even raised the possibility that the Iranians could track him through his e-mails to his residence.

In January 2000, Merlin threatened to quit the project altogether, and walked out of a meeting in February to go over the details of the trip to Vienna he was to take shortly to deliver the plans to the Iranian mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency. When his handlers suggested that he was afraid of having to meet the Iranians, he did not disagree.

The CIA’s Counterproliferation Division did not consider the unwieldy nature of the operation because those in the division were proud to be involved, a fact the government refuses to acknowledge.

According to the government, it is Sterling who “made” the CIA “appear hapless, even reckless in its handling of the program.” Sterling “carefully invented details and imaginary concerns that would draw the attention of the media.”

Sterling actually met with two Senate Intelligence Committee staffers in March 2003, where he talked to them about “Operation Merlin.” This was obviously an effort to go through proper channels. So, Sterling did have genuine concerns about the program and may have blown the whistle to Risen.

There were very few communications between Risen and Sterling presented in court. No emails presented showed the two had ever had communications about classified information. And, Sterling denies disclosing any information to Risen.

The range recommended is far, far more severe than the sentencing the government suggested for David Petraeus, who leaked “Black Books” with identities of covert officers, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and other classified information, including notes from his discussions with President Obama, to his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Petraeus lied about improperly possessing and leaking the material when questioned by FBI agents. Yet, he received a sweetheart plea deal that involved a fairly small fine, probation and no jail time.

There was a potential for severe damage to be caused if any of the information in Petraeus’ possession was made public incidentally. But Petraeus did not leak to hold any part of the government accountable. He leaked for purely narcissistic purposes—to help someone he was having an affair with write a biography intended to glorify him.

Sterling is being made an example because he dared to challenge the CIA, and the government is vilifying Sterling and delegitimizing Risen and what he reported in his book in order to finish rehabilitating the agency.

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US Government: Former CIA Officer Jeffrey Sterling is ‘No Whistleblower,’ Deserves Lengthy Prison Sentence

Alexandria, Virginia federal courthouse where Sterling will be sentenced (Photo by Tim Evanson)

A sentencing memo from the United States government submitted to a federal court on Monday argued former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling is “no whistleblower” and recommended that Sterling be given a severe and lengthy prison sentence. The appropriate range of nineteen and a half to twenty-four years was suggested.

During a January trial, the government managed to convince a jury, with largely circumstantial evidence, that Sterling leaked information about a top secret CIA operation in Iran called “Operation Merlin” to New York Times reporter James Risen, who published details on the operation in a chapter of his book, State of War. He was convicted by a jury of crimes, including multiple Espionage Act offenses.

“Operation Merlin” involved the passage of flawed nuclear blueprints to Iran in order to get them to work on building a nuclear weapon that would never function. Sterling, an African American, was a case officer assigned to the program.

Before Sterling was accused of leaking, he brought a claim against the CIA and alleged discrimination. He appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court in 2005. However, the government successfully had the case thrown out by invoking the “state secrets” privilege.

The government maintains that Sterling leaked the information in an act of revenge—to “settle a personal score” because he had his case thrown out.

“The evidence at trial laid to rest any doubt about whether the defendant’s actions, which he still denies, were motivated by a desire to expose government malfeasance,” the government argues in its sentencing memo [PDF]. “Nothing could be further from the truth. The trial in this case established exclusively that the defendant was no whistleblower. He had nothing to blow the whistle on, so he invented a rogue operation and cast himself as the hero.”

The government claims Sterling was “motivated by pure vindictiveness.” The jury found “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Sterling “made a calculated, deliberate and willful decision to sabotage a critical counterproliferation program out of sheer spite, in violation of his sworn duty as a former CIA case officer—and in violation of this country’s criminal law.” He “distorted” the information in order to “maximize the damage to the CIA as an institution.”

The fact that Risen’s book damaged the CIA’s reputation by showing that “Operation Merlin” was reckless and poorly conceived is of particular concern to the government. The sentencing recommendation is payback for Sterling’s decision to challenge the rectitude of “Operation Merlin.”

“The program was meticulously conceived and developed over a period of many years by the CIA, in consultation with this country’s foremost nuclear experts, including a team — led by Walt. C — at a national laboratory. It was reviewed, vetted, and approved by high-level officials in the United States government and used not only against Iran but other countries as well.”

The sentencing recommendation is largely premised on the flawed assertion that Iran has or has had a nuclear weapons program and so “Operation Merlin” was incredibly critical. But journalist Gareth Porter’s book, Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, meticulously shows Iran has never intended to develop nuclear weapons. There is next to no evidence that Iran has had a “nuclear weapons program,” despite the claims of US officials.

Nonetheless, President George W. Bush’s national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, convinced the Times to not publish a story from Risen on “Operation Merlin” in 2003 because the US had “very few options for disrupting and undermining the Iranian nuclear weapons program.” Rice contended that nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of “rogue states” if details of the CIA program were published. Of course, Rice’s testimony is only legitimate if Iran, in fact, had weapons in 2003.

The very fact that President Barack Obama is in the process of negotiating a deal between US and Iran to prevent the development of nuclear weapons strongly suggests that the “substantial damage” Sterling allegedly caused is grossly exaggerated. Moreover, there are no nuclear weapons floating around that may fall into the hands of “rogue states” because of what Risen published.

Even more significantly, the government’s sentencing memo highlights two Russian assets involved in the operation. Sterling was responsible for handling Merlin. “Both Merlin and his wife testified that they continue to live in constant fear as a result of the disclosure of Merlin’s involvement with the CIA in State of War.”

Was “Merlin’s” life really put in danger by Risen’s book?

Gareth Porter wrote:

During 1997 and 1998, while the false set of plans for the “fire set” was being created by experts at one of the national laboratories, “Merlin” was busy writing e-mails and letters to organizations and individuals in Iran who might have some interest in the subject. He was signing his own name and identifying himself accurately as having worked at the Soviet Arzamas 16 nuclear weapons laboratory.

While in the middle of the CIA mission itself, “Merlin” did not feel safe:

In February 1999, he fretted that some of the e-mails he had gotten back from his many attempts to make contact with someone who might be connected with nuclear matters may have come from Iranian intelligence. Merlin informed his handlers that he had twice gotten error messages telling him that intrusions had been detected on his Hotmail account. He even raised the possibility that the Iranians could track him through his e-mails to his residence.

In January 2000, Merlin threatened to quit the project altogether, and walked out of a meeting in February to go over the details of the trip to Vienna he was to take shortly to deliver the plans to the Iranian mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency. When his handlers suggested that he was afraid of having to meet the Iranians, he did not disagree.

The CIA’s Counterproliferation Division did not consider the unwieldy nature of the operation because those in the division were proud to be involved, a fact the government refuses to acknowledge.

According to the government, it is Sterling who “made” the CIA “appear hapless, even reckless in its handling of the program.” Sterling “carefully invented details and imaginary concerns that would draw the attention of the media.”

Sterling actually met with two Senate Intelligence Committee staffers in March 2003, where he talked to them about “Operation Merlin.” This was obviously an effort to go through proper channels. So, Sterling did have genuine concerns about the program and may have blown the whistle to Risen.

There were very few communications between Risen and Sterling presented in court. No emails presented showed the two had ever had communications about classified information. And, Sterling denies disclosing any information to Risen.

The range recommended is far, far more severe than the sentencing the government suggested for David Petraeus, who leaked “Black Books” with identities of covert officers, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and other classified information, including notes from his discussions with President Obama, to his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Petraeus lied about improperly possessing and leaking the material when questioned by FBI agents. Yet, he received a sweetheart plea deal that involved a fairly small fine, probation and no jail time.

There was a potential for severe damage to be caused if any of the information in Petraeus’ possession was made public incidentally. But Petraeus did not leak to hold any part of the government accountable. He leaked for purely narcissistic purposes—to help someone he was having an affair with write a biography intended to glorify him.

Sterling is being made an example because he dared to challenge the CIA, and the government is vilifying Sterling and delegitimizing Risen and what he reported in his book in order to finish rehabilitating the agency.

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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."

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