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Imprisoned CIA Whistleblower Renews Push For Presidential Pardon

CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling, an African American who is serving a prison sentence after he was convicted of multiple violations of the Espionage Act, renewed his campaign for a pardon from President Barack Obama.

The renewed push came just over four months after Holly Sterling, Jeffrey’s wife, wrote a formal letter to Obama.

During a press conference at the National Press Club on February 17, she indicated she had not received any information related to her letter and had no idea if Obama had even read it. She pleaded with the president to read about what his Justice Department had done to her husband, recognize he was wrong, and use the power he has to do what is right and pardon him.

Sterling stood up to the CIA and pursued a racial discrimination lawsuit against the agency in 2002. It was dismissed after the government invoked the “state secrets privilege” when it was before the Supreme Court in 2005. He also informed the Senate Intelligence Committee that he had knowledge of waste, fraud, abuse, and illegality related to Operation Merlin, a botched operation which involved passing on flawed nuclear blueprints to the Iranians.

The Justice Department’s investigation into Sterling began over a decade ago, and the government convinced a jury in Eastern District of Virginia, through largely circumstantial evidence, that Sterling leaked information on Operation Merlin to New York Times reporter James Risen. He was sentenced to 42 months in prison.

Sterling reported to Federal Correctional Institution Englewood, a medium-security facility in Littleton, Colorado, on June 16. It is about 900 miles away from where his wife and family live in St. Louis.

“This has devastated us financially,” Holly declared. When she found out he would be imprisoned so far away from home, she understood this as “another way to basically stick it to Jeffrey and also to keep us apart.”

However, in spite of the government’s actions, Holly has been able to raise funds to make it possible for her to make monthly visits to see Jeffrey. She has also been able to use donations to keep their home from being foreclosed.

A statement from Jeffrey was read at the press conference:

Everyday I ask why I’m forcibly separated from my wife, Holly, our family, and friends. Why am I in prison? I know the answer because it was born out of who I am today and who I have always been. The answer to my daily question is because, through the years, I said no to discrimination at the CIA. I said no to government intimidation and retaliation. I said no to compromising my principles by pleading to a crime I did not commit.

All the while I was saying yes to doing the right thing not only for my wife but also for my country. I took a stand and followed the rules. For this, I was targeted and summarily finished. I have thought I stood alone. I have learned differently. While I have been invisible to many, many more here in this country and throughout the world have expressed solidarity with me and the cause of justice or the struggles I have endured. Their undying support and encouragement, along with that of my incredible wife, Holly, inspire me to continue fighting.

At the press conference organized by Expose Facts, Roots Action, and Reporters Without Borders, Holly was joined by Cornel West, CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou, Justice Department whistleblower and attorney for whistleblowers Jesselyn Radack, Delphine Halgand, U.S. director of Reporters Without Borders, and Tim Karr, the senior director of strategy for Free Press.

“Never in the history of this nation has there been a black person who had the courage to fight racial discrimination against the CIA,” West stated. “Never in the history of this nation has there been a black man in the White House that would allow him to go to jail unjustly. Two black men—one in power, one dealing with the arbitrary uses of power of that black president. Shame on you, President Barack Obama, to violate the rich tradition and legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin King, and W.E.B. Du Bois, and a host of others.”

West suggested four questions Du Bois had raised were relevant here: how integrity faces oppression, what honesty does in the face of deception, what decency does in the face of insult, and how virtue meets brute force.

“My dear brother, Jeffrey Sterling, is a man of integrity, of honesty, of decency, and of virtue. And he’s dealing with oppression, and deception, and insult, and brute force.”

Kiriakou, who spoke out against waterboarding and served a 30-month sentence in federal prison for confirming the name of an undercover agent to a reporter, said Sterling “did exactly what he was supposed to do when blowing the whistle on a program that he believed constituted waste, fraud, abuse, and illegality. And he paid for it with his freedom.”

“The point was to ruin him, utterly ruin him for the rest of his life,” Kiriakou said, as he explained why the Obama administration would so aggressively prosecute him. “The point was to bankrupt him with legal fees far exceeding $1 million, legal fees that he’ll never be able to repay. The point was to demonize him in the press. And the point was to frighten any other would be whistleblowers. You see what we did to Jeffrey Sterling? The same thing is going to happen to you if you open your mouth and expose waste, fraud, abuse, and illegality.”

Kiriakou has applied for a pardon just like Sterling, but he does not expect Obama to pardon him. That is partly because Obama has pardoned 64 people so far in his presidency, the fewest number when compared to all previous presidents in history. (As one column in the Washington Post indicated, “Only six other presidents have been less merciful, and most of those served a single term or less.)

Halgand expressed concern that Sterling was punished for talking to a reporter. The evidence, which formed the basis of his conviction, “consisted only of multiple emails and phone communications” between Risen and Sterling. “No content directly proved that Jeffrey Sterling was a source.”

As Radack noted, the Obama administration has been responsible for the “most draconian crackdown on national security and intelligence community whistleblowers in U.S. history.” The administration has pursued whistleblowers aggressively as they look the other way when “powerfully, politically connected individuals” engage in unauthorized disclosures of classified information.

“Some even run for President of the United States,” Radack quipped, a clear mention of the fact that Hillary Clinton is under investigation for having classified State Department emails on her private server.

Holly acknowledged Jeffrey was part of an “exclusive group” of people who have been punished as if they are criminal spies when in fact they had the courage to tell the truth.

“You want these people working for our United States government because they have the heart, they have the conviction, and they care about all of us. And they put their lives on the line, and their families are destroyed for helping us and for protecting us,” Holly concluded.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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