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…)