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.
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.