Jeffrey Sterling's Conviction: A Warning to All Whistleblowers
January 30, 2015
Norman Solomon / Consortium News
The mass media have suddenly discovered Jeffrey Sterling -- but only after his conviction as a CIA whistleblower. Sterling was charged with sharing state secrets (involving a botched CIA attack on Iran's nuclear program) with New York Times reporter James Risen. Sterling was portrayed as a "disgruntled employee" (for having accused the agency of racial discrimination") and convicted on circumstantial evidence in a seven-day "show trial" that seemed designed to discourage other whistleblowers.
Convicting the 'Invisible' Jeffrey Sterling
Norman Solomon / Consortium News
(January 27, 2015) -- The mass media have suddenly discovered Jeffrey Sterling -- after his conviction Monday afternoon as a CIA whistleblower. Sterling's indictment four years ago received fleeting news coverage that recited the government's charges. From the outset, the Justice Department portrayed him as bitter and vengeful -- with the classic trash-the-whistleblower word "disgruntled" thrown in -- all of which the mainline media dutifully recounted without any other perspective.
Year after year, Sterling's case dragged through appellate courts, tangled up with the honorable refusal of journalist James Risen to in any way identify sources for his 2006 book State of War.
While news stories or pundits occasionally turned their lens on Risen, they scarcely mentioned Sterling, whose life had been turned upside down -- fired by the CIA early in the Bush administration after filing a racial discrimination lawsuit, and much later by the 10-count indictment that included seven counts under the Espionage Act.
Sterling was one of the very few African American case officers in the CIA. He became a whistleblower by virtue of going through channels to the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2003 to inform staffers about the CIA's ill-conceived, poorly executed and dangerous Operation Merlin, which had given a flawed design for a nuclear weapons component to Iran back in 2000.
Long story short, by the start of 2011, Sterling was up against the legal wall. While press-freedom groups and some others gradually rallied around Risen's right to source confidentiality, Sterling remained the Invisible Man.
Like almost everyone, for a long time I knew close to nothing about Sterling or his legal battle. But as I began to realize how much was at stake in the government's ongoing threat to jail Risen for refusing to betray any source, Sterling started to come into my peripheral vision.
Last spring, I worked with colleagues at RootsAction.org to launch a petition drive titled We Support James Risen Because We Support a Free Press. As petitions go, it was a big success, for reasons well beyond the fact that it gained more than 100,000 signers with plenty of help from other initiating groups (The Nation, FAIR, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, The Progressive and Center for Media and Democracy).
The Justice Department, which had been aggressively pursuing Risen for a half-dozen years at that point, was set back on its heels by the major favorable publicity that came out of our mid-August presentation of the Risen petition in tandem with a news conference at the National Press Club.
Quick media ripple effects included a strong column by Maureen Dowd in support of fellow New York Times journalist Risen (though she didn't mention the petition or the news conference, which she attended).
In the fall, I teamed up with a colleague at ExposeFacts.org, the incisive investigative journalist Marcy Wheeler, to write what turned out to be a cover story in The Nation, "The Government War Against Reporter James Risen," providing the first in-depth account of the intertwined cases of Risen and Sterling.
But throughout the fall, for the mass media as well as all but a few progressive media outlets, Jeffrey Sterling remained the Invisible Man. The principle of supporting whistleblowers as strongly as journalists is crucial. Yet support for the principle is hit-and-miss among individuals and organizations that should be clear and forthright. This need is especially great when the government is invoking "national security" claims.
As the whistleblower advocate Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project has said: "When journalists become targets, they have a community and a lobby of powerful advocates to go to for support. Whistleblowers are in the wilderness. . . . They're indicted under the most serious charge you can level against an American: being an enemy of the state."
We encountered this terrain when the same initiating groups launched a new petition -- this one in support of Jeffrey Sterling -- Blowing the Whistle on Government Recklessness Is a Public Service, Not a Crime.
Some groups that had been wonderfully supportive of the Risen petition -- notably the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Committee to Protect Journalists -- opted not to have anything to do with the Sterling petition. In sharp contrast, quick endorsement of the Sterling petition came from Reporters Without Borders and the Government Accountability Project.
Two weeks ago, Jeffrey Sterling went to trial at last. He was at the defense table during seven days of proceedings that included very dubious testimony from 23 present and former CIA employees as well as the likes of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
When a court clerk read out the terrible verdict Monday afternoon, Sterling continued to stand with the dignity that he had maintained throughout the trial. At age 47, Jeffrey Sterling is facing a very long prison sentence. As a whistleblower, he has done a lot for us. He should be invisible no more.
Norman Solomon is the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and the author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. He is a co-founder of RootsAction.org. This article originally appeared at ExposeFacts.org.
The Revenge of the CIA:
Scapegoating Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling
Norman Solomon / ExposeFacts.org
(January 15, 2015) -- This week, in a federal courtroom, I've heard a series of government witnesses testify behind a screen while expounding on a central precept of the national security state: The CIA can do no wrong.
Those CIA employees and consultants are more than mere loyalists for an agency that soaks up $15 billion a year and continues to loosen the bonds of accountability. The docket says "United States of America v. Jeffrey Alexander Sterling," but a more discerning title would be "National Security State v. The Public's Right to Know."
For the first time in 30 years, a case has gone to trial in a civilian court under the Espionage Act with charges that the defendant gave classified information to news media. Not far from the CIA headquarters in Northern Virginia, legal jargon is flying around the courtroom, but the law has very little to do with this case.
Top officials in the U.S. government leak classified information all the time, without punishment. But Jeffrey Sterling was not a top official. He's a former CIA officer, charged with giving classified information to journalist James Risen about a CIA operation that provided Iran with flawed nuclear weapon blueprints -- information that appeared in Risen's 2006 book State of War.
Hearing the testimony from CIA operatives, it's clear that the agency is extremely eager to make an example of Sterling. Despite all the legalisms, the overarching reality is that the case against Sterling is scarcely legal -- it is cravenly political.
If it were otherwise, the last two CIA directors to leave their posts -- General David Petraeus and Leon Panetta -- would be going through the same kind of ordeal that Sterling has been enduring. There's hefty evidence that both Petraeus and Panetta leaked classified information while running the agency. But these days they're busy getting rich, not in danger of imprisonment for the rest of their lives.
On Wednesday, the jury heard vague and emphatic claims that Sterling jeopardized the safety of a "human asset" and his family by revealing information about a CIA operation. But the first page of Chapter Nine in State of War reveals a self-inflicted CIA catastrophe in Iran that Sterling had nothing to do with.
Sterling no longer worked for the CIA when the disaster occurred in 2004. An officer at the agency's Langley headquarters made the mistake of sending data to an agent that "could be used to identify virtually every spy the CIA had inside Iran," Risen reported. And the recipient of the data was actually a double agent. Risen wrote: "The agent quickly turned the data over to Iranian security officials, and it enabled them to 'roll up' the CIA's agent network throughout Iran."
That information hardly fits with the agency's profuse efforts to scapegoat Jeffrey Sterling for its operational woes in Iran. There was no public accountability for the huge screw-up that led to the rollup of agents inside Iran.
Vastly more important, there was no public accountability for top CIA officials who cravenly helped to lie the United States into invading Iraq a dozen years ago with the pretext of (nonexistent) Iraqi WMD.
In sharp contrast, it has been quite convenient for the CIA to try to crush whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling, who -- whether or not he was a source for Risen's State of War book -- by all accounts went through channels to let the Senate Intelligence Committee know about Operation Merlin, the reckless CIA maneuver that gave nuclear weapon blueprints to Iran in 2000.
In an opening statement earlier this week, Sterling attorney Edward MacMahon hit a key point when he said: "A criminal case is not a place where the CIA goes to get its reputation back." He noted that "the same CIA was telling us all that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."
The CIA hierarchy continues to have no interest in accepting responsibility for its deceptions, no matter how horrific the results. But the agency has been hell-bent on making a scapegoat out of Sterling, a mid-level employee who was one of the agency's very few African American case officers.
From the lofty heights of CIA officialdom, Sterling's sins were unforgivable. Based on his experiences inside the CIA, he had the temerity to pursue a racial discrimination lawsuit against the agency. And he later told Senate oversight committee staffers about a highly dubious CIA operation that risked adding to proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Those actions were quite proper. But a decade ago they surely antagonized high CIA officials, including John Brennan -- now the CIA's director, and a powerful adviser to President Obama.
The CIA's offending whistleblower is now a defendant in legal proceedings that are poisoned fruits of a political vendetta. While doing whatever damage control it can for itself, the CIA is doing all it can to damage the life of Jeffrey Sterling.
Norman Solomon is the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and the author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. He is a co-founder of RootsAction.org.
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