Breaking Silence, Wife of Jailed CIA Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling Seeks Presidential Pardon

October 15, 2015


Holly Sterling

wife of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling. In May, Jeffrey Sterling was sentenced to 42 months in federal prison on charges that he gave classified information to a New York Times reporter.

Norman Solomon

executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, co-founder of and coordinator of

In an unprecedented news conference today, the spouse of a jailed CIA whistleblower is speaking out. Holly Sterling, the wife of imprisoned former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, will appear at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to appeal for a presidential pardon. Sterling is serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence for leaking classified information to New York Times reporter James Risen about a failed U.S. effort to undermine Iran’s nuclear program. Risen later exposed how the risky operation could have actually aided the Iranian nuclear program. In January, Sterling was convicted of nine felony counts, including espionage. Ahead of her news conference, Holly Sterling joins us along with Norman Solomon, longtime activist and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In an unprecedented news conference today, the spouse of a jailed CIA whistleblower is speaking out. Holly Sterling, the wife of imprisoned former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, will appear at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Sterling is serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence for leaking classified information to New York Times reporter James Risen about a failed U.S. effort to undermine Iran’s nuclear program. Risen later exposed how the risky operation could have actually aided the Iranian nuclear program. In January, Sterling was convicted of nine felony counts, including espionage. His case was the subject of the documentary short, The Invisible Man. Here’s a clip.

JEFFREY STERLING: They already had the machine geared up against me. The moment that they felt there was a leak, every finger pointed to Jeffrey Sterling. If the word "retaliation" is not thought of when anyone looks at the experience that I’ve had with the agency, then I just think you’re not looking.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from The Invisible Man, produced by Norman Solomon of and Judith Ehrlich, who directed The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.

Well, we’re joined right now in Washington, D.C., by the wife of Jeffrey Sterling, Holly Sterling, who will be speaking at the National Press Club after she leaves this broadcast. Also with us is Norman Solomon, longtime activist, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, co-founder of and coordinator of

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! We want to start with Holly Sterling. Can you talk about what you will be saying at the National Press Club today? What happened to your husband? Why is he in jail. And what are you demanding?

HOLLY STERLING: Jeffrey is in prison currently right now because he was convicted of espionage. The press conference today is to make people aware of what has happened, but most importantly, I have written a letter to President Obama asking for the immediate pardon of Jeffrey.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Norm Solomon, can you explain, for people aren’t that familiar with Jeffrey Sterling’s case, why is it significant and what kind of precedent might it set?

NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, the case is significant for civil liberties and for freedom of the press and, really, the public’s right to know, with informed consent, in what’s supposed to be a democracy. The challenge is for people to recognize that at many levels the Obama administration is continuing to wage an enormous war on whistleblowing and investigative journalism, in tandem with the tightening, even further, through technology and political choice, of the surveillance state and continued warfare around the planet, as we’ve heard again in the news today in terms of a warfare state.

So the precedents are chilling in many respects. And a few of them, briefly, include that Jeffrey Sterling was convicted on the basis entirely of circumstantial evidence. The government presented a mosaic of supposedly incriminating information that involved entirely legal activities by Jeffrey Sterling. And it should be made clear that Jeffrey is a whistleblower because, through legal channels, he went to the Senate Intelligence Committee as a former CIA case officer to give information about a botched and dangerous CIA operation involving nuclear weapon design transmittal to Iran. So, the precedents are very dangerous because, in a real sense, they’re a warning shot across the bow not only for journalists and potential whistleblowers, but for any government official who even legally goes through channels to provide concerns and information to appropriate officials, who legally speaks to journalists. What happened to Jeffrey Sterling was, in the trial itself, those legal activities were turned against him and used as circumstantial evidence toward conviction.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip from The Invisible Man, your documentary, about Jeffrey Sterling’s case. This is a clip.

JEFFREY STERLING: I reached out to the Senate Intelligence Committee. I gave them my concerns about an operation I was involved in, and I thought it could have an impact, a negative impact, on our soldiers going into Iraq.

RAY McGOVERN: Operation Merlin was a cockamamie, harebrained scheme developed by covert action operators who had lots of money.

JEFFREY STERLING: The Senate Intelligence Committee and the House committee, they have clearances to hear this. That is what they are there for. They are there for oversight.

RAY McGOVERN: They are not oversight committees; they are overlook committees.

NARRATOR: Before reporting Operation Merlin to the Congress, Sterling had sued the CIA for racial discrimination.

CONNIE CHUNG: Sterling became the first African-American case officer to sue the CIA for racial discrimination. He claimed a pattern of prejudice derailed his career.

JEFFREY STERLING: Shortly after 9/11, I felt anger, anger to the point, you know, I want to do something about this. I will drop my discrimination claims. I want to come back and help. The response I got at that offer of dropping my suit was: "You’re fired." John Brennan, the head of the CIA at the moment, he personally came down to the administrative office to tell me that I was fired. Someone told me that, "Well, you pulled on Superman’s cape."

AMY GOODMAN: That’s now jailed CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling explaining how he first expressed concerns about what the CIA was doing. If you, Norm Solomon, could tell us, how was he caught? What did the government do? And explain exactly how this case relates to the many-year legal struggle of James Risen, the leading New York Times reporter who himself faced jail for not talking about who his source was.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Yes. The government raided the home of Jeffrey Sterling and Holly Sterling in 2006, as I recall. And Holly was hauled before a grand jury and in front of the FBI in the D.C. area. And then, for several years, nothing happened. And it wasn’t until the Obama administration came in when suddenly Jeffrey, who had gone back into private employment—an exemplary inspector against insurance fraud—was suddenly indicted and arrested and taken into custody. And then there was a dragged-out several years while the government attempted to force the excellent New York Times investigative reporter James Risen to essentially rat on his sources for his book State of War about the Bush administration. And to his credit, Risen absolutely refused to do that. And so, after many years, Jeffrey Sterling was finally taken to trial early this year.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Holly Sterling, can you talk about the role of race in your husband’s case?

HOLLY STERLING: Absolutely. Well, as you had stated, Jeffrey was the first African-American case officer to file a suit against the CIA. And that, that played a major part in the trial, I believe. You know, Jeffrey had upset the CIA, and because of that, they went after him as really the only source, potential source, for Mr. James Risen’s book. And so, subsequently, you know, no one else—no one else was investigated except Jeffrey.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Holly, what happened when the authorities came to raid your home? Can you describe the day, where you were? Were you at home? Was Jeffrey at home?

HOLLY STERLING: Yes. Actually, I had just gotten home from testifying at the grand jury. And Jeffrey and I were home. Approximately 20 minutes after arriving home, my lawyer called to tell me that the FBI was on their way, because they did have a search warrant. And I’d like to note out that my lawyer said that this never happens. He’s never had, in the history of him being a criminal lawyer, the FBI calling to alert him that his client’s home is going to be raided. He said that means they have nothing on Jeffrey.

So, approximately about 10 minutes later after that phone call, there was a knock at the door, and about 15 agents surrounded our home, came in. They went methodically through our home. They were very polite. They asked, you know, "Is this the room where you said you had a computer?" took everything out, wearing gloves, putting things in brown paper bags, you know, and went through, put everything back. At one point, one of the agents went over to Jeffrey and showed him a subpoena for his work laptop. And the agent went to take Jeffrey’s actual suitcase that had the laptop in it. And many people may not know, but Jeffrey was a licensed lawyer before he was convicted, and read the subpoena and said, "It does not include the contents of the bag; it only includes the laptop," and so took out the laptop and gave that to the agent.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Norman Solomon, could you explain what President Obama could do now? What’s in his executive power to do on Sterling’s case?

NORMAN SOLOMON: President Obama has the power to respond to Holly Sterling’s letter today by issuing an immediate pardon for Jeffrey Sterling and getting him out of prison, where he’s been now for four months and is scheduled not for release until the middle of the year 2018. So the president could halt this, really, persecution, I would say, of Jeffrey Sterling that’s been going on for more than a decade, when you trace back the origins of what ordeal he and Holly Sterling have gone through.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Holly Sterling, why have you decided to do this now? You’re the first spouse of a CIA whistleblower, in prison now, to hold a news conference and speak out.

HOLLY STERLING: Well, as Norman had stated, this has been going on for over a decade. And unfortunately, Jeffrey really was—did not get any press coverage during this. It actually somewhat became the Risen case. And he’s been done a great injustice. He’s completely innocent. They had absolutely no evidence to state that Jeffrey had done this. Special Agent Ashley Hunt on cross-examine stated that fact, that there was absolutely no email records, no phone call records; no one had witnessed the two being together exchanging classified information. In fact, she said that she speculated that Jeffrey was the source. So he has been wrongly convicted, and I just think that, you know, he needs to be pardoned, that this was a grave injustice. And he does not need to be in prison for the next three-and-a-half years.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Can you tell us also where exactly he’s imprisoned and how often you’ve been able to visit him and what the process is for you to see him, your husband?

HOLLY STERLING: He actually is in Colorado. During the sentencing hearing, the judge had stated that he should be placed nearest to our home. We live in St. Louis, Missouri. Colorado obviously is not near our home; it’s approximately 900 miles away. I had to get permission to see Jeffrey. And I have been able to see him three times, once a month, since he’s gone in. It is extremely costly for me to go there—flight, airfare—excuse me—hotel, rental car. We get to visit approximately six hours a day on Saturday and Sunday. We sit in a room. We are able to sit next to one another. But the unfortunate thing is that Jeffrey is demoralized when I visit by having to go through a strip search before and after our visit.

AMY GOODMAN: Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project wrote a piece for in May called "The shocking court case that proves the government’s shameful Petraeus hypocrisy." In it, she asks why former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling faced two decades in prison, while former CIA Director General David Petraeus got two years’ probation for similar charges. Radack writes, quote, "Petraeus, who gave a far greater volume of classified and potentially harmful information to his mistress, was given a sweetheart plea deal and was never charged—with anything. Conveniently, his sweetheart plea deal was to a misdemeanor not under the Espionage Act. Similarly, former CIA directors Leon E. Panetta and John O. Brennan, both of whom disclosed the identities of undercover operatives, were never charged." Norm Solomon, can you talk about this difference in how people are treated?

NORMAN SOLOMON: This entire episode, which continues with Jeffrey Sterling, is part of a huge pattern of selective prosecution, in the case of Leon Panetta; selective sentencing, in terms of General David Petraeus. And it shows how the entire judicial and executive branch process, in terms of assessing and prosecuting classified leaks, is just riddled with pollution and poisoned by political power. This administration, worse than any other in memory in this regard, has totally turned the prosecution of leaks into a politicized set of vendettas. And I think it’s necessary—it’s essential—that we recognize that there is no equality or near equality or justice under the law in this regard.

I should add that Jeffrey Sterling was convicted on the basis of metadata, which totally undermines the claims of this administration and its defenders, in terms of surveillance, that metadata is not an intrusion. In point of fact, it’s part of a speculative process where the government is able to inject and project into the proceedings its own assumptions and fantasies about what the metadata actually indicates in terms of content that’s not provided.

And I should add that the news conference today featuring Holly Sterling not only is co-sponsored by and as part of the Institute for Public Accuracy, where I work, but, very significantly, leadership has been taken by Reporters Without Borders. And this is very important because we need—and it is essential—for journalistic organizations to recognize and fight for the rights of whistleblowers, which are totally intertwined with the rights of an independent and free press. And I have to say that the good news, bad news, good news is that Reporters Without Borders is a conspicuous organization by forthrightly challenging this very oppressive treatment of Jeffrey Sterling. We need many other journalistic organizations to step to the fore and begin a show some courage, which has been lacking from them.

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