Among the many things the media missed concerning the Jeffrey Sterling trial, perhaps the most interesting narrative is that of race.
Race has driven this case from the very beginning, from the day that Sterling, a 1989 Millikin University graduate and CIA operative, was told by a superior at work that they didn’t think a “big black man speaking Farsi” would be able to recruit potential Iranian spies for the U.S.
This case screams race, but not just because Sterling is black. It has more to do with a black man fitting into a white society, then dealing with both worlds turning their backs on him.
In 2013, a group of my students from Millikin worked on a number of stories about Sterling. Following is the start of one of those stories, concerning Sterling and race. After it ends, I’m going to finish where the students left off:
En 380 – Studies in Journalism
The image of Jeffrey Sterling never quite fit. Even when he was working for the CIA, it never fit.
One day while sitting in a break room eating his lunch, Sterling was approached by a fellow black colleague. The man looked at Sterling in surprise and asked “What are you doing here?”
“I work here,” was Sterling’s reply.
Sterling was happy to work at the CIA. “The Culinary Institute of America,” he joked, smiling fondly. Fresh out of Washington University Law School and with a job working as a public defender, Sterling applied for a job with the Agency, and was hired. Sterling now worked for a historically white institution, one where the man in the break room was surprised to see another African American.
He enjoyed his job and spent much of his time traveling to Europe.
“I had to convince people to give up secrets about their country,” said Sterling. He was good at it, too. He thinks it helped that he “didn’t fit the mold of what people expected a CIA officer to look like.” With his shaved head and pierced ears, Sterling definitely did not look like the typical spy mold.
Even after everything that happened, Sterling would join up again in a heartbeat. “I still believe in the organization,” Sterling said. ”Regardless of my history there, I am absolutely proud to have been a part of the CIA.”
After training for years to learn Farsi and become a specialist on Iran and weapons of mass destruction, Sterling was thrilled to finally get to utilize all his training and travel to Iran. Until, during a conversation with a superior, when he learned he had been passed over for a project.
Sterling was floored.
He had spent weeks training for this mission. Why was he being pulled off the project?
His superiors were concerned that he would be unable to operate successfully as “a big black guy speaking Farsi.”
“When did you realize that I was black?”
And with that, he filed a racial discrimination suit in 2001, the first racial discrimination suit against the CIA. He filed pro-se: on his own.
“If you don’t pick the battle to fight for yourself, you are not going to fight for anything or anyone,” Sterling said, “so what the hell is there, if you can’t stand up for yourself?”
The case didn’t go well. The court stated that “while we think there is merit to this case, it can’t go forward because of national security. This is a burden that Sterling will have to take on behalf of the country.”
Sterling couldn’t believe it. Taking one for the team “was not something I asked for…it was kind of a kick in the gut.”
The last thing he wanted was to be known primarily as an African American instead of just a man. He spent his life avoiding that image.
Building an image
Sterling paints a picture of himself as someone who defied the odds and overcame circumstances. He was the first of his family to go to college. The image Sterling grew up was not the reality he wanted for himself.
When searching for colleges, Sterling stumbled upon Millikin University in Decatur, Ill. His family was not in favor of him attending; they wanted him to choose a historically black university. Sterling, however, just wanted a good education.
“I didn’t give a damn if I was the only black person on campus,” he said.
Arriving on campus in 1985, Sterling already had his college career planned out. Millikin was going to be his way of “opening [himself] up to the world.”
His goal was law school. Sterling was an eager student. During the time Sterling attended Millikin, there was a rise in black organizations on campus. The Black Student Association (formerly “For Souls Only) had returned to the university, and black fraternities and sororities were present.
Sterling spent minimal time with these organizations, choosing to be with his friends and joined the fraternity Tau Kappa Epsilon. While part of TKE, Sterling was the only black member. He remembers his time in the “Dead Heads” fraternity fondly. He did some charity work with a black organization whose name he couldn’t recall. Beyond that, he had no ties to the African American community at Millikin.
According to a study on the racial identity of African American men by Eric M. Bridges, assimilated people have attempted to join the majority culture and disconnected themselves from their community. The individual may seek to reduce, diminish, and/or reject their heritage. This individual may be overly sensitive when negative images are associated with themselves.
Losing this image
This might help explain Sterling’s reaction when passed over by the CIA. He had excelled without using race as a factor. Now, race was used as a factor against him. And when he fought back, his case was dismissed for national security reasons.
After filing suit, Sterling was unceremoniously dismissed from the CIA.
He only wished he could have been seen as a man beyond his race. “It’s not Jeffrey Sterling: black man. It’s Jeffrey Sterling who happens to be black.”
It’s something he has been fighting for his entire life.
In fact, in the memoirs that Sterling wrote that may never be published because the CIA forbade him to write about his racial discrimination suit, Sterling wrote this about himself:
“ In my memoir (which will most likely never be published) I wrote about feeling like a man without a country (because I didn’t fit in either the African American or White American worlds for various reasons), and that is where I am today.”
When all of this started, well over a decade ago, Sterling reached out to the black community for help.
“I talked with a lot of people,” he said. “I talked to the NAACP, the Rainbow Push Coalition, congressmen, senators, you name it. No one wanted to get involved in this.”
In fact, one person with considerable political influence actually advised Sterling to move to Canada. Of course, he refused. He didn’t think it would come to where it is today.
Today, Sterling waits, just like he has waited for over 13 years. He’s being prosecuted by a black Attorney General and a black President. He’s the focal point of an administration that promised to be the most transparent administration in history and has become one of the least tolerant. The administration’s stance against whistleblowers, it’s breaches of American’s privacy, the non-stop attacks against members of the media who report on government overreach is unequaled in U.S. history.
And it all started with a black man, educated at primarily white schools, who believed that he should be given the same chances to blend in at a primarily white workplace. He stood up for himself and got slapped down. He was told that his suit had merit but he needed to take one for the team. He was not allowed to publish his own story and he was blackballed from finding work in his chosen profession.
He was then accused of giving up an embarrassing government secret (one that has resulted in no harm to individual lives) to a journalist. Thirteen years later, he’s still waiting for a chance to have his say in a courtroom while the American press concentrates on the government’s obsession with forcing journalist James Risen to either testify in the trial or go to jail.
Think this case isn’t about race? In America, a story like this could only happen to a black man.
Jeffrey Sterling didn’t plan on becoming a CIA case officer. But one day, soon after receiving his law degree from Washington University, Sterling saw an ad in the paper and decided to give it a shot.
Little did he know that the ad in the paper would lead to a racial discrimination suit against a powerful government agency, a federal indictment under the Espionage Act and the ruination of any and all attempts to find gainful employment at anything.
“The man can’t even get a job at 7-11,” Edward MacMahon, Sterling’s lawyer, told a class at Millikin in 2013.
It didn’t start this way. Sterling loved his job at the CIA and received good work evaluations. He advanced and even got the opportunity to take on a new assignment recruiting Iranians to give information to the United States. Then, when an assignment stalled, Sterling went to ask what was going on. A supervisor to the Iran Task Force told him they didn’t think a “big black guy speaking Farsi” would be able to do the job since he would stick out.
“When did you realize I was black,” Sterling replied.
He followed with a racial discrimination suit against the CIA. The company managed to have most of his suit squashed because of national security reasons. Then, when Sterling asked the CIA to allow him to publish his memoirs, their edits were so deep that Sterling believed it gutted his story.
So he talked to New York Times reporter James Risen about his suit and the memoirs. Risen wrote a story about this in 2002.
In 2003, the government talked Risen out of writing a story about a failed plan to stall the Iranian nuclear program. In 2006, Risen mentioned that story in his book State of War. In 2011, the U.S. government officially indicted Sterling.
The government claims that Sterling talked with Risen out of spite, that after the publications review board refused to let him publish his memoirs, Sterling told them that he would “come at the CIA with everything at his disposal.” Sterling’s indictment
Sterling was portrayed as a bitter man who didn’t get his way and gave out classified information, willfully and knowingly breaking the law. Sterling denies this.
The government portrayed Sterling as a dangerous man and said that Sterling’s actions were worse than selling secrets to the enemy. In the U.S. government’s petition to keep Sterling jailed after his indictment, the prosecutor wrote:
“The defendant’s unauthorized disclosures, however, may be viewed as more pernicious than the typical espionage case where a spy sells classified information for money. Unlike the typical espionage case where a single foreign country or intelligence agency may be the beneficiary of the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, this defendant elected to disclose the classified information publicly through the mass media. Thus, every foreign adversary stood to benefit from the defendant’s unauthorized disclosure of classified information, thus posing an even greater threat to society.”
One simple point of fact: Risen’s revelations in his book did little harm to the United States government and it did not affect a live agent, despite the government’s disagreements. Politico’s Josh Gerstein wrote about that in 2011. (here and here.)
It did embarrass the United States government and that was enough for them to pursue the case.
Sterling claims innocence in the government’s case and has repeatedly stressed his desire for a trial to get the opportunity to prove that innocence.
But Sterling’s case has been overshadowed by the government’s fight with Risen, who refuses to testify and name his source. That case has been brought to the United States Supreme Court for review. It’s the Risen case that has the press’s attention. The Risen case highlights government overreach in trying to identify and eliminated whistleblowers within the federal government. It’s that case that threatens to put fear into the journalists who search for stories that will keep the government honest.
Of course, let a potential whistleblower know what’s happened to Sterling and that alone should send a chill through anyone considering doing anything that might embarrass the United States government.
(For those interested, here are many of the court filings in the Sterling case filings)
Up Next: The role of race in the Sterling case
Why am I so interested in the Jeffrey Sterling case?
I’ll admit, it all started out as a good idea for a class. I talked with Bill Freivogel about looking for a good story to help my students get things turned around at the Decaturian, the student newspaper that I am the faculty adviser for and he suggested Jeffrey Sterling, a 1989 Millikin alum who was one of the eight people who had been indicted under the Espionage Act during the Obama administration.
I looked into the case and it had everything for a good class.
You were able to combine media law (First Amendment rights, shield laws, etc.) with ethics and throw in a good whistleblower and you have an outstanding class. The class was going great and we were all learning a lot about the case when we actually got Sterling to come talk with the class.
That’s when it all changed.
I always tell my students that the best stories happen when we discover the people behind the story. Jeffrey Sterling’s story is one of the most powerful, sad stories I’ve ever heard.
It all started with a black man attending a pair of mostly white colleges. By all accounts he fit in well at Millikin and even joined a fraternity mostly known for having a good time. You can easily pick him out in the photos from then, he’s the black guy. Race never seemed to be an issue for him. He joined the CIA and advanced. He worked for the CIA for a number of years and advanced up the ladder. They asked him to learn Farsi so he could work in Iran. He learned the language. And then, he found out he wasn’t going to be sent to Iran. Why? They didn’t see how a “big, black guy” could get the results they were looking for in Iran. Sterling’s response: “When did you figure out I was black?”
“This ordeal has meant financial ruin for me. But, at the end of the day I have to be able to look myself in the mirror, and I could never do so without knowing that I fought with everything within me, without compromise.”
Sterling fought back. He filed suit against the CIA but was told that it couldn’t go to trial because the information that would have been used to determine the company’s discrimination was of a sensitive nature security-wise. Then the CIA told Sterling he couldn’t publish his memoirs, because they could give up sensitive information.
Sterling was powerless. He had lost his job, he couldn’t find work in Washington D.C. doing the normal work former CIA officers did and no one would listen to him. Except for a reporter from the New York Times. They talked about Sterling’s discrimination trial. The government says they also talked about a failed CIA mission in Iran. The information didn’t hurt any agents but it certainly made the U.S. government look bad.
The government then put taps on Risen’s phone, intercepted his email, looked into his financial records and invaded his privacy in every conceivable way to find out who his source was for the book “State of War”. They decided it was Sterling and indicted him under the Espionage Act.
If the story ended here, it would be a sad story. If Sterling gave the information to Risen, he broke the law. It’s a stupid law. It’s a law that gives the government too much power to control the media message it sends out to the American people. It’s a law that only three Presidents have tried to use this way (Nixon, George W. Bush and Barack Obama) but it’s still a law.
Here’s where the story goes off the tracks. It doesn’t end here. This is just the beginning. James Risen refused to name his source and took it to court. Risen’s case became a powerful media narrative about reporters and sources and government overreach. Sterling was forgotten.
But he’s still out there, under indictment. He tries to get a job, people look at his qualifications, they want to hire him, then they do a background check. No job.
He can’t defend himself in a court of law, he can’t clear his name. Sterling maintains his innocence. He wants the case to go to trial. He wants to get a chance to find some kind of closure.
He stood up to the CIA in 2001. For 13 years his life has been a wreck. This is worse than any prison sentence. This is cruel and unusual punishment.
We’d rather live in abject poverty with our heads held high, than merely ‘getting on with our lives’ through any sort of fallacious accord with the government, if to ever be proposed.”
And it has gone nearly unreported. Sure, Sterling’s name comes up often when people talk about the Risen case, but most reporters don’t even get the facts of the case right.
Midway through the class I taught that concentrated on the Sterling case, soon after they talked with him, I noticed a clear change in the class’s attitude. They no longer cared if he was guilty or innocent. They firmly believed that this man had paid a price that few, if anyone, had ever had to pay.
The man stood up for himself against the U.S. government. He lost. He was then purported to have given information to a reporter that embarrassed the government. He paid, without benefit of a trial, with years of a living purgatory with no means of absolution. A trial will finally give Sterling closure but his life has been ruined. Yet somehow, through all of this, the fighter that had the balls to stand up to the CIA pops back up.
“This ordeal has meant financial ruin for me,” Sterling said. “But, at the end of the day I have to be able to look myself in the mirror, and I could never do so without knowing that I fought with everything within me, without compromise.
“My wife and I joke about having to pick out our cardboard boxes to live in considering how long this is taking and how long it may continue. Even though we joke about it, we do know it is certainly a possibility.
“But, as long as we have each other, it won’t matter if we’re penniless or not. We’d rather live in abject poverty with our heads held high, than merely ‘getting on with our lives’ through any sort of fallacious accord with the government, if to ever be proposed.”
Take a look and see what they’ve written. People need to know this story.
The 1989 Millikin graduate with a law degree from Washington University is now little more than a footnote as media rush to defend journalist James Risen in his battle against the United States government.
Risen’s battle is just. As a New York Times reporter, Risen reported on a failed CIA operation in Iran in his 2006 book State of War. The government tapped his phones and took extraordinary measures to determine Risen’s source. Those searches pointed to Sterling, who was arrested and indicted under the Espionage Act. Risen has refused to name his source and promises to go to jail before giving him up. The government is trying to force Risen to testify and after a 2-1 Appellate Court decision went against him in 2013, Risen asked the Supreme Court to hear the case.
As of the first of May, 2014, the Supreme Court has not decided whether to take the case or not. Count Sterling as one who hopes the Supreme Court decides not to take his case. In November, 2013, Edward MacMahon, Sterling’s attorney filed a brief with the Supreme Court asking the court not to stay his trial any longer. Sterling has maintained his innocence from the start and wants the chance to go to trial. He’s been waiting long enough.
“It is apparent that I am an afterthought in this entire case, there really has been no focus on me, other than being the de facto defendant,” Sterling said. “The longer this case goes, the more I, as a person become irrelevant.”
The media see the case as a battle between the press and government overreach in hunting down whistleblowers. The government wants to shut down whistleblowers within its ranks and considers the press as part of the problem. Sterling wants a trial.
“This case has turned into more of a battle between the government and the press with me as a pariah for both sides,” he said. “I just happen to be the conduit, or a means to an end, particularly for the government.
“So, the impact on me continues to be that my life is forfeit while the government and press have their battle.”
The press have paid little or no attention to Sterling the man, often getting the facts of the case wrong as stories rush to the Risen angle. They pay little attention to Sterling’s decade long fight against the government that started with the first racial discrimination case filed against the Central Intelligence Agency, the loss of his job and the eventual ruination of his career.
A 2013 story by students from Millikin documented Sterling’s tribulations from 2001 to now. Little has changed for the man who once asked his boss at the CIA “When did you realize I was black.”
In the last year, Sterling queried Washington University about returning to school to earn an advanced law degree in the field of right of publicity. The school, after talking with him for a day, declined.
Early in 2014, Sterling thought he’d finally found a job.
“I had applied for a job with a government contractor by the name of Serco who was slated to administer applications for the Affordable Care Act,” Sterling said. “During a group interview session, I was offered, and accepted the job.
“I attended the first day of orientation, received my employee number, had a picture taken for my ID and even signed up for benefits.”
Sterling thought he’d caught a break. It didn’t last long.
“I was escorted out the next day,” he said. “I was told that I did not pass the background check. I made no arguments other than stating that I had been convicted of nothing.”
It didn’t matter. Sterling’s name pops up on a background check and jobs go away. He can’t find work and he can’t sell his name on the lecture circuit because he doesn’t know how the story ends. So he waits. And every day he checks to see if the Supreme Court decides to hear Risen’s case. If it does, media and government will finally have a chance to clear up the Branzburg v. Hayes ruling of 1972. And Sterling will continue to wait, the afterthought. Once the trial finally starts, will media finally pay attention to Sterling?
“Given the focus to this point, once Risen’s involvement is over, the media will have no real interest in me or the case,” Sterling said.