Why Jeffrey Sterling’s story is important to me

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.”

In the next few days I’ll be writing the story of Jeffrey Sterling. My students wrote theirs a year ago. You can find a copy of some of their stories (here) and (here).

Take a look and see what they’ve written. People need to know this story.


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