Would CIA Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling Be in Prison If He Were White?

Jeffrey Sterling

Last week CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling went to prison. If he were white, he probably wouldn’t be there.

Sterling was one of the CIA’s few African-American case officers, and he became the first to file a racial discrimination lawsuit against the agency. That happened shortly before the CIA fired him in late 2001. The official in Langley who did the firing face-to-face was John Brennan, now the CIA’s director and a close adviser to President Obama.

Five months ago, in court, prosecutors kept claiming that Sterling’s pursuit of the racial-bias lawsuit showed a key “motive” for providing classified information to journalist James Risen. The government’s case at the highly problematic trial was built entirely on circumstantial evidence. Lacking anything more, the prosecution hammered on ostensible motives, telling the jury that Sterling’s “anger,” “bitterness” and “selfishness” had caused him to reveal CIA secrets.

But the history of Sterling’s conflicts with the CIA has involved a pattern of top-down retaliation. Sterling became a problem for high-ranking officials, who surely did not like the bad publicity that his unprecedented lawsuit generated. And Sterling caused further hostility in high places when, in the spring of 2003, he went through channels to tell Senate Intelligence Committee staffers of his concerns about the CIA’s reckless Operation Merlin, which had given Iran some flawed design information for a nuclear weapons component.

Among the U.S. government’s advantages at the trial last winter was the fact that the jury did not include a single African-American. And it was drawn from a jury pool imbued with the CIA-friendly company town atmosphere of Northern Virginia.

Sterling’s long struggle against institutionalized racism is far from over. It continues as he pursues a legal appeal of his three-and-a-half year sentence. He’s in a prison near Denver, nearly 900 miles from his home in the St. Louis area, making it very difficult for his wife Holly to visit.

Last week, as Sterling headed to Colorado, journalist Kevin Gosztola wrote an illuminating piece that indicated the federal Bureau of Prisons has engaged in retaliation by placing Sterling in a prison so far from home. Gosztola concluded: “There really is no accountability for BOP officials who inappropriately designate inmates for prisons far away from their families.” (more…)

Bureau of Prisons Puts CIA Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling in Prison Around 900 Miles from Wife & Family

Jeffrey Sterling
Jeffrey Sterling

CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling was notified at the end of last week that he will serve his prison sentence of three and a half years at Federal Correctional Institution Englewood, a medium-security facility in Littleton, Colorado, that is around 900 miles away from where his wife and family live in St. Louis. That is at least a 12-hour drive.

Sterling was convicted of committing Espionage Act violations and other offenses after the government convinced a jury, through largely circumstantial evidence, that he had leaked information on a top secret CIA operation to New York Times reporter James Risen. He begins his sentence on June 16.

“I am certainly devastated beyond belief that I won’t be near my wife and family,” Sterling stated. “My wife, family, and friends have been an important support system for me and being so far away is like a wedge being driven between me and those who continue to love, support, and believe in me.”

“The government likes to isolate whistleblowers from their natural allies, and now the Bureau of Prisons is trying to isolate them from their families,” declared Jesselyn Radack, the director of the Government Accountability Project’s National Security and Human Rights Division. “Once again, the Bureau of Prisons proves that ‘rehabilitation’ is not their priority or else they’d place prisoners near their families.”

Sterling and his wife, Holly, are already economically devastated from the prosecution. Now, Holly will have to spend hundreds of dollars on air travel each time she wants to see him, a factor that may greatly limit how frequently she visits her husband in prison.

The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has a very weak policy when it comes to keeping inmates close to their “release residence” or homes. It “attempts to designate inmates to facilities commensurate with their security and program needs within a 500-mile radius of their release residence.”

“If an inmate is placed at an institution that is more than 500 miles from his/her release residence, generally, it is due to specific security, programming, or population concerns.” However, there are next to no mechanisms for an inmate to hold BOP accountable for improperly designating or placing them in an inappropriate facility.

There are no low security facilities close to St. Louis, but there are four low security facilities, which are closer to St. Louis than FCI Englewood:

FCI Forrest City – Forrest City, Arkansas – 4 hr 32 min – 313 miles
FCI Ashland – Ashland, Kentucky – 6 hr 35 min – 453 miles
FCI Waseca – Waseca, Minnesota – 7 hr 36 min – 500 miles
FCI Sandstone – Sandstone, Minnesota – 9 hr 34 min – 618 miles

Any of those facilities are closer to his family than FCI Englewood, and three of them arguably would fall within BOP’s 500-mile policy.

How does Sterling’s incarceration compare to previous cases of people prosecuted for leaks? (more…)

In First Interview, CIA Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling Says Congressional Staffer Urged Him to Flee

In his first interview since he was charged with leaking details of a botched CIA operation to New York Times reporter James Risen, CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling says that he had a meeting with a staffer for Congressman William Lacy Clay and was urged to flee the United States.

Sterling, who worked as an African American case officer, was found guilty by a jury of committing multiple Espionage Act offenses when he exposed information about “Operation Merlin,” which involved passing flawed nuclear blueprints to Iran in order to get the country to work on building a nuclear weapon that would never function.

He left the CIA in 2002 and brought a claim against the CIA alleging racial discrimination. He appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court in 2005. However, the government successfully had the case thrown out by invoking the “state secrets” privilege. The government has maintained that he leaked details about Operation Merlin in revenge for his discrimination lawsuit being dismissed.

Sterling was sentenced to three and a half years in prison on May 11. It is the longest sentence issued by a federal court during President Barack Obama’s administration.

Expose Facts, an advocacy organization that has mobilized support for Sterling, conducted an interview with Sterling, which aired on “Democracy Now!”.

Sterling recalls receiving information that there was a “possible leak of information” and “everyone” was “pointing a finger” at him. He needed to find some help.

He went to a local congressman, Clay, and one of his staff members looked at him and told him he should “just leave the country.” That hurt Sterling because the staff member was a black man working for a black representative and they were telling him not to stand up for his civil rights.

“You don’t run away. You stand up for yourself,” Sterling declares.

Sterling and his wife, Holly, describe what happened after Risen published details about “Operation Merlin” in a chapter of his book, State of War, in 2006. FBI agents came to their door.

“They flew me out to Virginia, and I went to FBI headquarters and was interrogated for seven hours,” Holly recalls. “And then, the next day they surrounded the home actually. They just went methodically through the home. They went to my family. They went to my employer. It’s incredibly intrusive and incredibly disturbing. You’re whole sense of security in your home and privacy was violated.”

Jeffrey mentions that he thought he would be arrested. He was not, and it was not until more than four years later that he was charged on January 6, 2011. At that point, he was arrested.

The trial started very soon after and was delayed as the government sought testimony from Risen. Sterling expresses how it bothered him that he was the defendant being prosecuted and the press transformed the case into the “Risen case,” which meant there was little discussion about how the government was going after him.

Sterling says that he is still “in shock” about the fact that he was found guilty by a jury. He adds that the government shut him up with his discrimination case, and “they’ve closed the door with the criminal case.” (more…)

Former CIA Officer Jeffrey Sterling Sentenced to Jail for Leaking to Journalist

Jeffrey Sterling (Photo by Institute for Public Accuracy)

Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for leaking information to a journalist. It was the longest sentence issued by a federal court during President Barack Obama’s administration.

During a trial in January, the government convinced a jury, with largely circumstantial evidence, that Sterling leaked information about a top secret CIA operation in Iran called “Operation Merlin” to New York Times reporter James Risen, who published details on the operation in a chapter of his book, State of War. “Operation Merlin” involved the passage of flawed nuclear blueprints to Iran in order to get them to work on building a nuclear weapon that would never function.

He was convicted of violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses. The government had argued a sentence ranging from 19.5 to 24 years in prison would be reasonable.

Judge Leonie Brinkema, according to Times reporter Matt Apuzzo, said Sterling had “jeopardized the safety of a CIA informant.” And, “Of all the types of secrets kept by American intelligence officers, she said, ‘This is the most critical secret.’”

“If you knowingly reveal these secrets, there’s going to be a price to be paid,” Brinkema added. Sterling had to be punished in order to send a message to other officials, who might consider revealing these kinds of secrets.

Still, Brinkema did not issue a sentence that advocates for Sterling had feared might be issued against him.

“This is the least worst outcome,” Jesselyn Radack, director of the Government Accountability Project’s National Security and Human Rights division, declared. “I expected it to be worse given the huge amount of time that the government was requesting. That said, in my opinion, any jail time is excessive in light of the sweetheart plea deal that [David] Petraeus received for leaking classified information to his mistress.”

Sterling’s defense had argued [PDF] that the court could not “turn a blind eye to the positions the government has taken in similar cases.”

The government agreed to sentence Petraeus to two years of probation and a fine of $40,000 (which the judge hearing the case increased to $100,000). It was lenient considering the fact that Petraeus leaked “Black Books” containing the names of covert officers, war strategy notes, discussions from high level National Security Council meetings and notes from his meetings with President Barack Obama. He also lied to the FBI but was not charged with perjury or obstruction of justice. And the government allowed him to plead guilty to a misdemeanor violation instead of a violation of the Espionage Act.

“Sterling should not receive a different form of justice than General Petraeus,” Edward MacMahon Jr. suggested. (more…)