Podcast: CIA Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling & the Government’s Campaign to Silence Him
Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for leaking to a journalist. It was the longest sentenced issued under President Barack Obama’s administration by a federal court as punishment for a leak.
During a trial in January, he was convicted of violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses. The government convinced a jury, with largely circumstantial evidence, that Sterling had leaked information about a top secret CIA operation in Iran called “Operation Merlin” to New York Times reporter James Risen, who later published details on the operation in a chapter of his book, State of War. (“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.)
The government pushed hard for Sterling to be sentenced to prison as long as 19 to 24 years.
This week on the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast Jesselyn Radack is the show’s guest. Radack is the director of the National Security and Human Rights Division of the Government Accountability Project. She has represented a number of prominent whistleblowers, such as Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, and, currently, Edward Snowden. She is also a Justice Department whistleblower.
During the interview, Radack discusses Sterling’s sentence and compares his case to recent leak prosecutions. She highlights how he is a whistleblower and highlights the personal toll that a prosecution like this can take on a person. She reacts to some notable statements Sterling made in his first interview, which was produced by the advocacy organization, Expose Facts. In the final portion of the interview, Radack reacts to the ridiculous letter to the Times from former CIA directors, including some who leaked the names of covert agents. They lecture the Times on the need to protect the names of CIA officials involved in the drone program.
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Below is a partial transcript of the interview.
GOSZTOLA: The sentence for Sterling was much, much shorter than the government had been going for. They had really been gunning for him and pushing to put him behind bars for decades. Will you talk about the outcome of this sentence?
RADACK: My reaction initially, like that of a lot of people, is that the sentence of three and a half years was the least worst possible outcome given that the government was seeking 20 to 25 years. A lot of people, for example, Peter Maass, who writes for The Intercept, saw this as a rebuke towards the government. That said, I felt like any jail time for Sterling was completely excessive given the sentencing of General Petraeus for revealing a far greater volume of classified material that was classified at a far higher level.
GOSZTOLA: Just to get into that, because this was one of the more interesting aspects of the sentencing portion of this trial. There was this back and forth with the government. The defense initiated it, making comparisons between Sterling and then the way John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer, was sentenced. The way that Stephen Kim, a former State Department employee, was sentenced. And then the way that General David Petraeus was sentenced. How did you react to the exchange that went on about those people?
RADACK: The sentencing memorandum submitted by the government was notable for its vitriol and the way it just went really personal on Jeffrey Sterling, who is a modern-day Horatio Alger story and a really upstanding person. But just saying that he should be punished severely and that this caused greater harm than any Espionage Act prosecution for leaking of late, which just defies credulity because the government, of course, accused Thomas Drake of being—He would have the blood of soldiers on his hands. And said that the Chelsea Manning leak would damage in perpetuity and said John Kiriakou’s leak, that damage that would go on would be indescribable.
For the government to now claim that any damage from Jeffrey Sterling’s supposed leak was going to cause all sorts of national harm really just gilded the lily and was just such blatant fearmongering from the government that maybe Judge [Leonie] Brinkema realized the government had pulled the wool over her eyes one to many times in its claims of harm caused by leaks, especially after the Petraeus sentencing, which the government’s memorandum didn’t really delve into because it’s indefensible compared to what it was seeking for Sterling.
GOSZTOLA: Something you have to be careful of when talking about the case is that Sterling continues to deny that he provided this information to New York Times reporter James Risen and so it’s one of those things where— First, the trial, there was very, very, very little evidence presented to substantiate the leak of this information to James Risen.
RADACK: Right, the trial, in fact, was entirely circumstantial, even the judge acknowledged that during sentencing. There was no direct evidence that Sterling leaked anything to James Risen and I think some of the confusion in this case is because Sterling is a legitimate whistleblower, because he did take his concerns about racial discrimination and about the problems with the botched “Operation Merlin” to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is precisely what whistleblowers are supposed to do, and we hear a lot of hue and cry from the government about people needing to go through proper internal channels, which is in fact in exactly what Sterling did.
But the government also thinks that he leaked information to Risen, which he continues to deny and which actually he ended up getting an increased punishment because he refused to plea bargain. He was punished more harshly because of that.
GOSZTOLA: Right. Now, Expose Facts, this advocacy organization setup to support whistleblowers, has put out this interview with Jeffrey Sterling. It is the first interview of him on video talking about anything related to this case. And one of the things that is striking is even if you don’t call him a whistleblower because he provided material to Risen, because he still denies that he did that and we don’t really know if he did that. He’s at least a whistleblower because, as you’ve had experience at GAP, he brought a claim against the CIA alleging racial discrimination and then afterwards he was retaliated against because he brought that claim. Correct?
RADACK: That’s correct. And it also shows like in Thomas Drake’s case that if you bring your concerns about a government program to the congressional intelligence committees, which are supposed to be there to hear precisely such claims, that actually serves to entrap you and make you the subject or target of a retaliatory criminal leak investigation.
GOSZTOLA: There were a couple more things that stood out in this interview. One, Sterling is saying that John Brennan, who is now the CIA director, personally came down to fire him officially from the CIA. He says he comes in after 9/11. This is very common. This happened with Thomas Drake. I think this happened with you and then this happened with John Kiriakou, of feeling this sense of duty after 9/11 to respond in some way. So, Jeffrey Sterling comes back. He’s willing to drop his racial discrimination lawsuit and John Brennan is sent down to personally fire him.
RADACK: That’s correct. And it just shows how over the top these agencies are willing to go to make examples of people, to professionally embarrass you at best and to stigmatize you in the community. I mean, everything about Jeffrey Sterling’s case, the government’s reaction has been so over the top, whether it was the firing incident, whether it was what the government said in its sentencing memorandum, trying to get blood from a turnip. It’s just been such an over-reaction.
We see this come out in the way that people ranging from Thomas Drake to Aaron Swartz to Jeffrey Sterling have been over-prosecuted under laws like the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
GOSZTOLA: What about a few minutes after we hear that in the interview we get this story about Sterling—and this was about the time when he is hearing rumblings that he is going to be charged. These attorneys are still looking into him and feel like he is behind a leak. He goes and he seeks out some help from Rep. William Lacy Clay, who is a local congressman in St. Louis, Missouri, and a staffer apparently tells him that he should flee the United States.
RADACK: Yes, that is also startling yet it is eerily prescient of what we have seen in leak cases, especially with Edward Snowden, where literally he had to leave the United States in order for his disclosures to bear any fruit and be allowed to be heard by the public. So, that was interesting advice he was receiving from a congressional staffer, that he should probably leave the country while he still could. Shocking that raising a whistleblower allegation or claim could put you in that much jeopardy, but I’ve tried to say the stakes are not just—
Traditionally, a whistleblower would have to worry about, at most, being fired, and now they have to worry about losing their very liberty or even their statehood. That’s how high the stakes have been raised by the Obama administration.
GOSZTOLA: Another part that struck me was this description—I mean, any time, with Drake and with Kiriakou, the description of the FBI coming in to raid your home. It’s really profound to hear Holly, his wife, talking about how this upset her—the intrusion of privacy that happens when FBI come in and take your life over.
RADACK: Yes, I think anyone that’s been subject to a search warrant, even when it’s been authorized by a court, how incredibly intrusive it is and for a whistleblower it is such a complete shock because most of these folks have served the United States in the military or spent their life working for a government agency. Or, like in Tom Drake’s case, both the military and government service. So, to have the government turn on you in such an intrusive and horrible and invasive way, it immediately puts into sharp relief how quickly the government will turn on one of its own if it thinks you’ve stepped out of line in some kind of way.
And, it’s heartbreaking to hear Tom Drake or Jeff Sterling and Holly Sterling talk about the search warrants that were executed. It’s also interesting in those cases that after the search warrants are executed they hear nothing for a series of years and then all of a sudden you get criminal indictments under the Espionage Act of all things.
GOSZTOLA: Which obviously isn’t something to not care about because for those four years you are having difficulty getting employment. Or, you don’t know what to do with your future because you have no idea if you’re going to be prosecuted by the government tomorrow.
RADACK: That’s right. You have the Sword of Damocles hanging over your head after a search warrant like that. Your neighbors have seen it. They’ve probably shown it on the news. Certainly, people are talking about it. So, even if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’re still living with the threat of being criminally indicted and also the government has succeeded in stigmatizing you personally and professionally, which does often render you unemployed and unemployable. It’s happened with Thomas Drake and Jeffrey Sterling and John Kiriakou.
GOSZTOLA: And the personal destruction is very remarkable too. What’s really striking is one of the things in the defense’s sentencing memo, where he says he doesn’t feel like he can provide for Holly and that feeling of inadequacy coming from the prosecution. But then also, I appreciate at the end hearing him say that he is okay. He can look himself in the mirror and he’s happy with the way that he handled every step of the prosecution, which I think is probably essential if you’re going to go to jail. It’s probably essential to be able to come out and be happy about how you handled your prosecution.
RADACK: I think a lot of whistleblowers end up feeling that way, whether it’s a good or bad outcome. Every whistleblower I know, myself included, has always said words to the effect of, like, look I can face my God clear conscience. And that’s not something that General Petraeus and Michael Hayden and John Ashcroft and all of these people who have led these vicious campaigns of prosecution—Certainly, General Petraeus had a bunch of choice words about how damaging John Kiriakou’s leak had been when he was leaking like a sieve to his biographer mistress.
And so, I think a lot of whistleblowers, even though it’s very counterintuitive to a lot of people because of what they’ve been through—But when asked, would you do it again? They say yes. They may have gone about it differently or may have done it differently but that they still would have blown the whistle.
For the full interview, go here.