A month after former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was convicted on nine felony counts with circumstantial metadata, the zealous prosecution is now having potentially major consequences -- casting doubt on the credibility of claims by the U.S. government that Iran has developed a nuclear weapons program.
With negotiations between Iran and the United States at a pivotal stage, fallout from the trial’s revelations about the CIA’s Operation Merlin is likely to cause the International Atomic Energy Agency to re-examine U.S. assertions that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.
In its zeal to prosecute Sterling for allegedly leaking classified information about Operation Merlin -- which provided flawed nuclear weapon design information to Iran in 2000 -- the U.S. government has damaged its own standing with the IAEA. The trial made public a treasure trove of information about the Merlin operation.
Last week Bloomberg News reported from Vienna, where the IAEA is headquartered, that the agency “will probably review intelligence they received about Iran as a result of the revelations, said the two diplomats who are familiar with the IAEA’s Iran file and asked not to be named because the details are confidential.”
The Bloomberg dispatch, which matter-of-factly referred to Merlin as a “sting” operation, quoted a former British envoy to the IAEA, Peter Jenkins, saying: “This story suggests a possibility that hostile intelligence agencies could decide to plant a ‘smoking gun’ in Iran for the IAEA to find. That looks like a big problem.”
The leak trial of CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling never got near a smoking gun, but the entire circumstantial case was a smokescreen. Prosecutors were hell-bent on torching the defendant to vindicate Operation Merlin, nine years after a book by James Risen reported that it “may have been one of the most reckless operations in the modern history of the CIA.”
That bestselling book, State of War, seemed to leave an indelible stain on Operation Merlin while soiling the CIA’s image as a reasonably competent outfit. The prosecution of Sterling was a cleansing service for the Central Intelligence Agency, which joined with the Justice Department to depict the author and the whistleblower as scurrilous mud-throwers.
In the courtroom, where journalist Risen was beyond the reach of the law, the CIA’s long-smoldering rage vented at the defendant. Sterling had gone through channels in 2003 to warn Senate Intelligence Committee staffers about Operation Merlin, and he was later indicted for allegedly giving Risen classified information about it. For CIA officials, the prosecution wasn’t only to punish Sterling and frighten potential whistleblowers; it was also about payback, rewriting history and assisting with a PR comeback for the operation as well as the agency.
Last week, the jury — drawn from an area of Northern Virginia that is home to CIA headquarters, the Pentagon and a large number of contractors for the military-industrial-intelligence complex — came back with guilty verdicts on all counts. The jurors had heard from a succession of CIA witnesses as well as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, extolling Operation Merlin and deploring any effort to lift its veil of secrecy.
During the first half of the government’s six days of testimony, the prosecution seemed to be defending Operation Merlin more than prosecuting Jeffrey Sterling.
The mass media have suddenly discovered Jeffrey Sterling — after his conviction Monday afternoon as a CIA whistleblower.
Sterling’s indictment four years ago received fleeting news coverage that recited the government’s charges. From the outset, the Justice Department portrayed him as bitter and vengeful — with the classic trash-the-whistleblower word “disgruntled” thrown in — all of which the mainline media dutifully recounted without any other perspective.
Year after year, Sterling’s case dragged through appellate courts, tangled up with the honorable refusal of journalist James Risen to in any way identify sources for his 2006 book State of War. While news stories or pundits occasionally turned their lens on Risen, they scarcely mentioned Sterling, whose life had been turned upside down — fired by the CIA early in the Bush administration after filing a racial discrimination lawsuit, and much later by the 10-count indictment that included seven counts under the Espionage Act.
Sterling was one of the very few African American case officers in the CIA. He became a whistleblower by virtue of going through channels to the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2003 to inform staffers about the CIA’s ill-conceived, poorly executed and dangerous Operation Merlin, which had given a flawed design for a nuclear weapons component to Iran back in 2000.
Long story short, by the start of 2011, Sterling was up against the legal wall. While press-freedom groups and some others gradually rallied around Risen’s right to source confidentiality, Sterling remained the Invisible Man.
Continuing to deliberate as this week gets underway, the jurors in the CIA leak trial might ponder a notable claim from the government: “This case is not about politics.”
The prosecution made that claim a few days ago in closing arguments — begun with a somber quotation from Condoleezza Rice about the crucial need to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Of course prosecutor Eric Olshan was not foolish enough to quote Rice’s most famous line: “We don’t want the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud.”
During the seven days of the trial, which received scant media coverage, Rice attracted the most attention. But little of her testimony actually got out of the courtroom, and little of what did get out illuminated the political context of the government’s case against former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling.
A heavy shroud over this trial — almost hidden by news media in plain sight — has been context: the CIA’s collusion with the Bush White House a dozen years ago, using WMD fear and fabrication to stampede the United States into making war on Iraq.
And part of the ongoing context of the Sterling case has been the Obama administration’s unrelenting pursuit of Sterling for allegedly leaking classified information — revealed in the last chapter of a book by James Risen — about a now-15-year-old CIA operation that’s far more suitable for Freedom of Information Act disclosures than criminal prosecution. The jury is weighing nine felony counts, including seven under the atrociously misapplied Espionage Act.
Six days of testimony at the trial of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling have proven the agency’s obsession with proclaiming its competence. Many of the two-dozen witnesses from the Central Intelligence Agency conveyed smoldering resentment that a whistleblower or journalist might depict the institution as a bungling outfit unworthy of its middle name.
Some witnesses seemed to put Sterling and journalist James Risen roughly in the same nefarious category — Sterling for allegedly leaking classified information that put the CIA in a bad light, and Risen for reporting it. Muffled CIA anger was audible, coming from the witness stand, a seat filled by people claiming to view any aspersions on the CIA to be baseless calumnies.
Other than court employees, attorneys and jurors, only a few people sat through virtually the entire trial. As one of them, I can say that the transcript of USA v. Jeffrey Alexander Sterling should be mined for countless slick and clumsy maneuvers by government witnesses to obscure an emerging picture of CIA recklessness, dishonesty and ineptitude.
Midway through the trial of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, one comment stands out. “A criminal case,” defense attorney Edward MacMahon told the jury at the outset, “is not a place where the CIA goes to get its reputation back.” But that’s where the CIA went with this trial in its first week — sending to the witness stand a procession of officials who attested to the agency’s virtues and fervently decried anyone who might provide a journalist with classified information.
The CIA’s reputation certainly needs a lift. It has rolled downhill at an accelerating pace in the dozen years since telling President George W. Bush what he wanted the nation to hear about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. That huge bloody blot on the agency’s record has not healed since then, inflamed by such matters as drone strikes, rendition of prisoners to torture-happy regimes and resolute protection of its own torturers.
CIA sensibilities about absolution and prosecution are reflected in the fact that a former head of the CIA’s clandestine service, Jose Rodriguez Jr., suffered no penalty for destroying numerous videotapes of torture interrogations by the agency — which knew from the start that the torture was illegal.
But in the courtroom, day after day, with patriotic piety, CIA witnesses — most of them screened from public view to keep their identities secret — have testified to their reverence for legality.
In the process, the CIA is airing soiled threads of its dirty laundry as never before in open court. The agency seems virtually obsessed with trying to refute the negative portrayal of Operation Merlin — the CIA’s effort 15 years ago to provide a flawed nuclear weapon design to Iran — in James Risen’s 2006 book State of War.
Condoleezza Rice made headlines when she testified Thursday at the leak trial of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling — underscoring that powerful people in the Bush administration went to great lengths a dozen years ago to prevent disclosure of a classified operation. But as The Associated Press noted, “While Rice’s testimony helped establish the importance of the classified program in question, her testimony did not implicate Sterling in any way as the leaker.”
Few pixels and little ink went to the witness just before Rice — former CIA spokesman William Harlow — whose testimony stumbled into indicating why he thought of Sterling early on in connection with the leak, which ultimately resulted in a ten-count indictment.
Harlow, who ran the CIA press office, testified that Sterling came to mind soon after New York Times reporter James Risen first called him, on April 3, 2003, about the highly secret Operation Merlin, a CIA program that provided faulty nuclear weapon design information to Iran.
Harlow testified that he tried to dissuade Risen without confirming the existence of Operation Merlin, first telling the reporter “that if there was such a program, I didn’t think a respectable newspaper should be writing about it.” The next day, when Risen called back, “I said that such a story would jeopardize national security.”
Not until cross-examination by a defense attorney did Harlow acknowledge something that he’d failed to mention when describing his initial conversation with Risen: In fact, Harlow had told Risen that only Al Jazeera would be willing to cover the story he was pursuing.
This week, in a federal courtroom, I’ve heard a series of government witnesses testify behind a screen while expounding on a central precept of the national security state: The CIA can do no wrong.
Those CIA employees and consultants are more than mere loyalists for an agency that soaks up $15 billion a year and continues to loosen the bonds of accountability. The docket says “United States of America v. Jeffrey Alexander Sterling,” but a more discerning title would be “National Security State v. The Public’s Right to Know.”
For the first time in 30 years, a case has gone to trial in a civilian court under the Espionage Act with charges that the defendant gave classified information to news media. Not far from the CIA headquarters in Northern Virginia, legal jargon is flying around the courtroom, but the law has very little to do with this case.
When the trial of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling got underway Tuesday in Northern Virginia, prospective jurors made routine references to “three-letter agencies” and alphabet-soup categories of security clearances. In an area where vast partnerships between intelligence agencies and private contractors saturate everyday life, the jury pool was bound to please the prosecution.
In a U.S. District Court that boasts a “rocket docket,” the selection of 14 jurors was swift, with the process lasting under three hours. Along the way, Judge Leonie M. Brinkema asked more than a dozen possible jurors whether personal connections to the CIA or other intel agencies would interfere with her announced quest for an “absolutely open mind.”
From what I could tell, none of those with direct connections to intelligence agencies ended up in the jury box. But affinities with agencies like the CIA seemed implicit in the courtroom. Throughout the jury selection, there was scarcely a hint that activities of those agencies might merit disapproval.
The trial of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, set to begin in mid-January, is shaping up as a major battle in the U.S. government’s siege against whistleblowing. With its use of the Espionage Act to intimidate and prosecute people for leaks in “national security” realms, the Obama administration is determined to keep hiding important facts that the public has a vital right to know.
After fleeting coverage of Sterling’s indictment four years ago, news media have done little to illuminate his case -- while occasionally reporting on the refusal of New York Times reporter James Risen to testify about whether Sterling was a source for his 2006 book “State of War.”
Risen’s unwavering stand for the confidentiality of sources is admirable. At the same time, Sterling -- who faces 10 felony counts that include seven under the Espionage Act -- is no less deserving of support.
Revelations from brave whistleblowers are essential for the informed consent of the governed. With its hostilities, the Obama Justice Department is waging legalistic war on our democratic rights to know substantially more about government actions than official stories. That’s why the imminent courtroom clash in the case of “United States of America v. Jeffrey Alexander Sterling” is so important.
No single review or interview can do justice to “Pay Any Price” -- the new book by James Risen that is the antithesis of what routinely passes for journalism about the “war on terror.” Instead of evasive tunnel vision, the book offers big-picture acuity: focusing on realities that are pervasive and vastly destructive.
Published this week, “Pay Any Price” throws down an urgent gauntlet. We should pick it up. After 13 years of militarized zealotry and fear-mongering in the name of fighting terrorism, the book -- subtitled “Greed, Power, and Endless War” -- zeros in on immense horrors being perpetrated in the name of national security.
As an investigative reporter for the New York Times, Risen has been battling dominant power structures for a long time. His new book is an instant landmark in the best of post-9/11 journalism. It’s also a wise response to repressive moves against him by the Bush and Obama administrations.
The editorial board of the New York Times has an Orwellian knack for war. Sixteen months ago, when President Obama gave oratorical lip service to ending “perpetual war,” the newspaper quickly touted that end as a democratic necessity. But now -- in response to Obama’s speech Wednesday night announcing escalation of war without plausible end -- the Times editorial voice is with the endless war program.
Under the headline “The End of the Perpetual War,” published on May 23, 2013, the Times was vehement, calling a new Obama speech “the most important statement on counterterrorism policy since the 2001 attacks, a momentous turning point in post-9/11 America.” The editorial added: “For the first time, a president stated clearly and unequivocally that the state of perpetual warfare that began nearly 12 years ago is unsustainable for a democracy and must come to an end in the not-too-distant future.”
The Times editorial board was sweeping in its conclusion: “Mr. Obama told the world that the United States must return to a state in which counterterrorism is handled, as it always was before 2001, primarily by law enforcement and the intelligence agencies. That shift is essential to preserving the democratic system and rule of law for which the United States is fighting, and for repairing its badly damaged global image.”