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