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In First Interview, CIA Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling Says Congressional Staffer Urged Him to Flee

In his first interview since he was charged with leaking details of a botched CIA operation to New York Times reporter James Risen, CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling says that he had a meeting with a staffer for Congressman William Lacy Clay and was urged to flee the United States.

Sterling, who worked as an African American case officer, was found guilty by a jury of committing multiple Espionage Act offenses when he exposed information about “Operation Merlin,” which involved passing flawed nuclear blueprints to Iran in order to get the country to work on building a nuclear weapon that would never function.

He left the CIA in 2002 and brought a claim against the CIA alleging racial 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 has maintained that he leaked details about Operation Merlin in revenge for his discrimination lawsuit being dismissed.

Sterling was sentenced to three and a half years in prison on May 11. It is the longest sentence issued by a federal court during President Barack Obama’s administration.

Expose Facts, an advocacy organization that has mobilized support for Sterling, conducted an interview with Sterling, which aired on “Democracy Now!”.

Sterling recalls receiving information that there was a “possible leak of information” and “everyone” was “pointing a finger” at him. He needed to find some help.

He went to a local congressman, Clay, and one of his staff members looked at him and told him he should “just leave the country.” That hurt Sterling because the staff member was a black man working for a black representative and they were telling him not to stand up for his civil rights.

“You don’t run away. You stand up for yourself,” Sterling declares.

Sterling and his wife, Holly, describe what happened after Risen published details about “Operation Merlin” in a chapter of his book, State of War, in 2006. FBI agents came to their door.

“They flew me out to Virginia, and I went to FBI headquarters and was interrogated for seven hours,” Holly recalls. “And then, the next day they surrounded the home actually. They just went methodically through the home. They went to my family. They went to my employer. It’s incredibly intrusive and incredibly disturbing. You’re whole sense of security in your home and privacy was violated.”

Jeffrey mentions that he thought he would be arrested. He was not, and it was not until more than four years later that he was charged on January 6, 2011. At that point, he was arrested.

The trial started very soon after and was delayed as the government sought testimony from Risen. Sterling expresses how it bothered him that he was the defendant being prosecuted and the press transformed the case into the “Risen case,” which meant there was little discussion about how the government was going after him.

Sterling says that he is still “in shock” about the fact that he was found guilty by a jury. He adds that the government shut him up with his discrimination case, and “they’ve closed the door with the criminal case.”

He denies providing any information whatsoever to Risen and says nothing specifically about any interactions with Risen in the interview. What he does say is that he “reached out to the Senate intelligence committee” and expressed concerns. He thought it could have an impact on US soldiers deployed in Iraq. The committee had clearances to hear his concerns, which involved classified information.

Additionally, after the September 11th attacks, Sterling was angry and willing to drop his discrimination lawsuit if he could return to his job working for the CIA. John Brennan, who is now the director of the CIA, personally fired him. His effort to return was thwarted and he had no place to go for employment in Washington.

Government employees who face workplace retaliation become whistleblowers by challenging that treatment, as Sterling did. If he is not a whistleblower because he revealed information to Risen, then he is a whistleblower because he stood up to the CIA and was effectively silenced.

Holly explains in the interview that it is “incredibly difficult to watch him not being able to change the circumstances.” Her “greatest fear” is Jeffrey “going to jail.”

Her anguish and suffering, which will continue during Jeffrey’s time in prison, is one of the most heart-wrenching aspects of the war on whistleblowers. CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou’s wife, Heather, and his children experienced the pain that comes from separation for two years while Kiriakou was in prison.

The best the two of them can do is pledge to not let the government’s prosecution wreck their love for each other permanently.

Sterling’s defense argued prior to sentencing that he deserved leniency because he had already paid a high price for what he did. Since his arrest in 2011, Sterling “has been unemployed. Though he has tried repeatedly to gain employment, no employer wanted to hire anyone charged with espionage.” He has been unemployed for five years. He has spent all his savings trying to keep his house. He no longer feels like he can support his wife, who has stood by him.

At the end of the interview, Jeffrey confesses, “I am comfortable with myself, and the choices that I’ve made because I know I would not have done it any other way. I like who I see in the mirror.”

His supporters should be pleased to know Sterling has no regrets about how he would have handled everything. In spite of all the financial despair, that will be crucial to regaining confidence and rebuilding life after prison.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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


  1. JamesJoyce
    May 12, 2015 at 12:52 pm

    This is the same treatment Binney and Drake got for being dutiful Americans.

    “That hurt Sterling because the staff member was a black man working for a black representative and they were telling him not to stand up for his civil rights.”

    I’m sure Frank Church is vomiting right now…..

  2. Respondent#124847
    May 12, 2015 at 2:25 pm

    And the lesson is two-fold, either:

    1) Sit down, shut up & be a good little drone, or

    2) Be as smart as Snowden & only make the leak when you are safely out of the country.

    Neither option bodes well for ‘murka.

  3. psalongo
    May 12, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    principles comes with a high cost unfortunately.

  4. JamesJoyce
    May 12, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    “In 1914, he returned to the German Empire after being appointed director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics (1914–1932)[48] and a professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin, but freed from most teaching obligations. He soon became a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, and in 1916 was appointed president of the German Physical Society (1916–1918).[49]”

    In February 1933 while on a visit to the United States, Einstein knew he could not return to Germany with the rise to power of the Nazis under Germany’s new chancellor, Adolf Hitler.[62][63]

    While at American universities in early 1933, he undertook his third two-month visiting professorship at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He and his wife Elsa returned to Belgium by ship in March, and during the trip they learned that their cottage was raided by the Nazis and his personal sailboat confiscated. Upon landing in Antwerpon 28 March, he immediately went to the German consulate and turned in his passport, formally renouncing his German citizenship.[64]A few years later, the Nazis sold his boat and turned his cottage into an Aryan youth camp.[65]

    Refugee status

    In April 1933, he also discovered that the new German government had passed laws barring Jews from holding any official positions, including teaching at universities.[64] Historian Gerald Holton describes how, with “virtually no audible protest being raised by their colleagues,” thousands of Jewish scientists were suddenly forced to give up their university positions and their names were removed from the rolls of institutions where they were employed.[54]

    A month later, Einstein’s works were among those targeted by Nazi book burnings, with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels proclaiming, “Jewish intellectualism is dead.”[64] One German magazine included him in a list of enemies of the German regime with the phrase, “not yet hanged”, offering a $5,000 bounty on his head.[64][66] In a subsequent letter to physicist and friend, Max Born, who had already emigrated from Germany to England, Einstein wrote, “… I must confess that the degree of their brutality and cowardice came as something of a surprise.”[64] After moving to the U.S., he described the book burnings as a “spontaneous emotional outburst” by those who “shun popular enlightenment,” and “more than anything else in the world, fear the influence of men of intellectual independence.”[67]:197

    Einstein was now without a permanent home, unsure where he would live and work, and equally worried about the fate of countless other scientists still in Germany.”

    “At the end of the interview, Jeffrey confesses, “I am comfortable with myself, and the choices that I’ve made because I know I would not have done it any other way. I like who I see in the mirror.””

    Thinking of fraud, brutality and cowardice…. When Cheney and his ilk look into mirrors, they cast no reflections…..

    The lesson is, if you have to leave America or are told to leave America to protect your life and liberty, there is something absolutely wrong here in America. As we now see Snowden was correct about the illegal nature of telephone data collection dragnet surveillance. Hope the Roberts doesn’t protect CIA the way Taney protected slave owners?

    I guess there are those that still “shun popular enlightenment” and “intellectual independence,” which is often brutal honesty about fraud, brutality and cowardice,

    “You don’t run away. You stand up for yourself,” Sterling declares. Albert stood up to Nazi thugs and came to America!

    America, we have a serious problem.

  5. ThingsComeUndone
    May 12, 2015 at 3:45 pm

    Why 4 years to charge him ?

  6. ThingsComeUndone
    May 12, 2015 at 3:52 pm

    Look who they chase out anyone with the morals to not like what the Nazi’s were doing to Jews, Gypsies etc the less moral people in a society the less trust the harder to run a society. Paranoid rulers create an increasing feedback loop of distrust

  7. ThingsComeUndone
    May 12, 2015 at 4:03 pm

    This plan was beyound stupid I suspect the prosecution is mainly to protect an important person(s) reputation. Like Iran was not going to double check the nuclear bomb plans the CIA gave them by asking other nuclear powers. The Russians since it was plans for one of their nuclear bombs would know there was a leak and would thank Iran especially if they could interrogate the CIA Plant. China would want to compare the plans to what they got same with Pakistan, India countries Iran sells oil too etc.

  8. ThingsComeUndone
    May 12, 2015 at 4:06 pm