CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling, an African American who is serving a prison sentence after he was convicted of multiple violations of the Espionage Act, has requested President Barack Obama pardon him.
On October 15, his wife, Holly Sterling, appeared at a press conference at the National Press Club organized by Expose Facts, Roots Action, and Reporters Without Borders. She was joined by NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, and Justice Department whistleblower and whistleblower attorney, Jesselyn Radack.
Jeffrey Sterling’s wife drafted a formal letter to Obama, which includes the points she made about Jeffrey at the press conference.
“Does the government have no shame in destroying one man’s life and wasting tens of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to punish a man who had the audacity to do two things: Stand up for his constitutional rights and utilize proper channels provided to him to express concern for the citizens of our country?” Holly asks.
“I am deeply saddened by our lives’ events that Jeffrey and I have suffered and endured,” Holly adds. “You publicly committed to a transparent government led by your administration, yet it has been shrouded in mistruth and secrecy. Since you have started your push this summer to commute prison sentences for nonviolent offenders, will you not extend the same courtesy to an innocent man in prison?”
The government’s allegations hinged upon the narrative that Jeffrey Sterling leaked information to New York Times reporter James Risen about a top secret CIA operation in Iran called “Operation Merlin.”
At trial in January, the governments presented no emails showing Sterling and Risen had ever communicated about “Operation Merlin” or even classified information. There were questions at trial about whether he was being tried in the right district court, since the crimes allegedly committed did not take place in Virginia but in O’Fallon, Missouri, where he lived.
Prosecutors presented documents from 1987 about how to call into the CIA from rotary phones. The documents wre found in Sterling’s home in Missouri, and prosecutors claimed the retroactively classified documents had been moved from Virginia to his home so that made it acceptable to try him in the Eastern District Court of Virginia.
Sterling communicated with Risen, but it was about a lawsuit he filed against the CIA alleging racial discrimination. The lawsuit went all the way to the Supreme Court and was eventually dismissed because the government invoked the “state secrets privilege” to avoid litigation of his claims.
The communication for this story, which was within Sterling’s rights, led the government to craft a narrative that Sterling became angry and sought some kind of revenge against the government by leaking information on a secret CIA operation to Risen. However, more than anything, Sterling was concerned about the nature of “Operation Merlin” and went to a Senate intelligence committee to share concerns.
“In 2003, Jeffrey went to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to voice concerns he had regarding “Operation Merlin,” which he worked on while at the agency,” Holly recounts. “He had grave concerns about mismanagement of the program and potential harm to our country. This was a legal and proper channel for agency employees to voice any such concerns.”
As Reporters Without Borders previously declared, “Jeffrey Sterling is now in jail for merely talking to a journalist regularly. He was sentenced based only on circumstantial evidence.”
Holly raises key questions about the fairness of the trial. The jury was supposed to be of his peers, but out of approximately 110 jurors in the jury pool only seven were African American. “All of them were struck.”
“The prosecution had no direct evidence to support their allegations that Jeffrey committed the alleged acts,” Holly points out. “In fact, during cross examination of Special Agent Ashley Hunt, she said she had no proof that Jeffrey and Mr. Risen ever talked about the classified operation in the emails or phone calls. Additionally, Agent Hunt testified to never obtaining the telephone and email records of other potential leak sources. Agent Hunt stated she merely ‘suspected’ Jeffrey Sterling was the individual who leaked the information.”
Additionally, according to Holly, “Defense counsel Mr. Barry Pollack also ascertained from a current CIA manager that over 90 individuals were briefed on the classified operation. How can the government explain that Jeffrey was their only suspect when over 90 additional individuals had opportunity and motive to divulge classified information?”
Judge Leonie Brinkema also seems to have engaged in some troubling conduct:
… [T]he jury foreman reported they could not reach a decision. It was at that moment when Judge Brinkema was once again responsible for executing the proper instructions. Instead of stating to the jury that it was acceptable to not conclude a unanimous decision, she told the jury to return and deliberate. After a forty-five minute lunch break, the jury found Jeffrey guilty on all nine counts.
The letter to Obama goes into excruciating details about the hardship Jeffrey and Holly Sterling experienced as a result of the government’s prosecution.
Initially, Jeffrey Sterling had trouble pursuing employment because he had the “stigma” of suing the CIA. He was poor and had to sleep in his car as he made his way back to St. Louis. Then, in the summer of 2004, he caught a break and was hired to investigate fraud for WellPoint, Inc, and he met Holly. They fell in love and life was going well, however, it did not last because the FBI knocked on his door in 2006.
Holly recounts, “Approximately two months later, the FBI issued a grand jury subpoena to myself. In October, I endured seven hours of interrogation by Special Agent Ashley Hunt and her associate at FBI Headquarters, and the following day testified for three hours before a grand jury.”
“Upon returning home, I immediately received a call from my attorney stating he was on his way to our home as the FBI was en route with a search warrant,” Holly explains. “My attorney told me that the FBI agents ‘had nothing’ on Jeffrey because never before in any of his prior client’s cases did he receive a call from the FBI prior to a search. Minutes later, our home was surrounded and infiltrated by at least a dozen FBI agents confiscating our personal belongings.”
“The sanctity of our home was violated and I had a complete meltdown. I attempted to go to work the next day, only to be completely emotionally overwhelmed and was sent home by my employer who stated that I needed to leave because she thought I was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Holly shares.
Jeffrey and Holly Sterling attempted to resume their lives. Both believed the investigation might conclude in 2010, after Jeffrey received a call from his lawyer suggesting it was “winding down.” But, on January 6, 2011, he was told to come into work to attend a meeting and was arrested. WellPoint coordinated with the FBI to set up the “false meeting” to lure him to the office, even though he was on leave after having knee replacement surgery.
Holly spoke to “Democracy Now!” on October 15, about Jeffrey Sterling being incarcerated nearly 900 miles away from his home in St. Louis. He is in a prison around Littleton, Colorado.
“I had to get permission to see Jeffrey. And I have been able to see him three times, once a month, since he’s gone in,” Holly states. “It is extremely costly for me to go there—flight, airfare, hotel, rental car. We get to visit approximately six hours a day on Saturday and Sunday. We sit in a room. We are able to sit next to one another. But the unfortunate thing is that Jeffrey is demoralized when I visit by having to go through a strip search before and after our visit.”
As previously reported by this journalist, there are multiple low security facilities in Arkansas, Kentucky, and Minnesota, which would be closer than the prison in Colorado and within the Bureau of Prisons’ policy of incarcerating individuals within 500 miles of their home.
Full press conference at the National Press Club:
To watch Expose Facts’ documentary, “The Invisible Man: CIA Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling,” go here.