A federal court jury on Monday found Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA employee, guilty of espionage charges for leaking to The New York Times over a decade ago details of a secret U.S. attempt to slow Iran's development of nuclear weapons.
Federal prosecutors alleged that Sterling, 47, of O’Fallon, Mo., leaked the information in retaliation for the agency’s refusal to settle to his satisfaction administrative and civil complaints that he had filed against the agency.
Times correspondent James Risen disclosed the CIA operation in 2006 in his book, “State of War,” describing an agency scheme to send Iran phoney blueprints for a nuclear weapon. After threatening to compel Risen to testify, however, prosecutors ultimately won Sterling’s conviction in federal court in Alexandria, Va. without calling the journalist as a witness and without providing direct evidence that Sterling was Risen’s source. Rather, they strung together years of evidence of the relationship between the men in a circumstantial case.
Sterling was convicted of six counts of unauthorized disclosure of national defense information and one count each of unlawful retention of national defense information, unauthorized conveyance of government property and obstruction of justice.
The outcome was a big victory for the Obama administration, which has aggressively sought to crack down on the so-called insider threat -- leaks to the news media about classified government programs. Other leaks revealed the National Security Agency’s massive collection of metadata on Americans’ phone and email communications.
But while civil liberties and watchdog groups contended that Sterling was a whistleblower at a time when the Bush administration ramping up plans to go to war with Iraq, prosecutors said the operation that Sterling oversaw was not bungled and didn’t warrant exposing.
“This is a just and appropriate outcome,” Attorney General Eric Holder said following the verdict. “The defendant’s unauthorized disclosures of classified information compromised operations undertaken in defense of America’s national security. The disclosures placed lives at risk. And they constituted an egregious breach of the public gtrust by someone who had sworn to uphold it.”
He also said that the outcome showed “it is possible to fully prosecute unauthorized disclosures that inflict harm upon our national security without interfering with journalists’ ability to do their jobs.”
FBI Director James Comey’s words were at least as harsh: “He violated his sworn duty to protect our nation’s secrets and he betrayed our country.”
Sterling worked for the CIA from May 1993 to January 2002. The Justice Department disclosed during the trial that from November 1998 through May 2000, he was assigned to a clandestine program designed to undermine the Iranian nuclear weapons program, a role in which he handled a human asset who was identified only as “Merlin” during the trial.
In May 2000, Sterling was reassigned and no longer was authorized to receive or possess classified information.
Despite pledging in security, secrecy and non-disclosure agreements never to disclose classified information to unauthorized persons, the government alleged, he leaked secret information about the program, prosecutors charged. They said that he ignored the proper route for airing concerns about possibly improper conduct when classified information is involved.
The government’s evidence included records of phone calls that Sterling made in February and March 2003 to Risen’s home and the fact that he emailed a newspaper article about the weapons capabilities of a certain country that had been part of his operational assignment. Prosecutors also presented evidence that Sterling and Risen remained in touch from December 2003 through November 2005 through telephone and email. Risen’s book was published in January 2006.
Although he was aware of a grand jury investigation into the leak by June 2006 when he was served a subpoena for records related to Risen’s book, Sterling deleted an email containing classified information, the government alleged.
Sterling now likely faces a lengthy stay in a federal prison.