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Exclusive: CIA Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling Speaks Out upon Sentencing to 3.5 Years in Prison

May 12, 2015
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Norman Solomon

executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, co-founder of RootsAction.org and coordinator of ExposeFacts.org.

On Monday, former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was sentenced to 42 months in prison 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. He becomes the latest government employee jailed by the Obama administration for leaking information. Since he was indicted four years ago, Jeffrey Sterling’s voice has never been heard by the public. But that changes today. We air an exclusive report that tells his story, "The Invisible Man." We are also joined by Norman Solomon, who interviewed Sterling for the piece and attended both his trial and sentencing. Solomon is a longtime activist, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, co-founder of RootsAction.org and coordinator of ExposeFacts.org.


TRANSCRIPT

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

AARON MATÉ: On Monday, former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was sentenced to 42 months in prison 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. He becomes the latest government employee jailed by the Obama administration for leaking information.

AMY GOODMAN: Since he was indicted four years ago, Jeffrey Sterling’s voice has never been heard by the public. But that changes today. Prior to his sentencing, he agreed to do an interview with Norman Solomon of ExposeFacts.org and Judith Ehrlich, who directed The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Their piece is called "The Invisible Man."

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.

NARRATOR: "The Invisible Man: CIA Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling." January 26, 2015.

ALYONA MINKOVSKI: Breaking news: Jeffrey Sterling, the former CIA officer, has been convicted of espionage. He faces years in prison.

RT ANCHOR: Sterling is the man who the CIA is blaming for giving the national defense information to The New York Times reporter James Risen. The case centers around a secret CIA operation to give faulty nuclear plans to Iran in an effort to slow down the country’s nuclear ambitions.

NARRATOR: Sterling denies leaking to James Risen.

HOLLY STERLING: He did nothing wrong. He did nothing illegal. He expressed concern for our country.

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."

NARRATOR: Eventually the court dismissed Sterling’s discrimination lawsuit on grounds that the trial would reveal "state secrets."

JEFFREY STERLING: After I had been fired, I had nowhere to go. No one would hire me. I was living out of my car, essentially, and I had hit rock bottom. By happenstance, friends had just had a baby in the St. Louis area, a friend that I had gone to college with. They had a small room for me there. And it was difficult to come to that realization that I go from being a case officer in a Central Intelligence Agency, I have a law degree, to I’m a manny. But such is life. And I was there, and that always adds a bit of joy to—you know, holding, taking care of a newborn baby.

HOLLY STERLING: You’re a part of our family, our package deal.

JEFFREY STERLING: I got the job with a company, health insurance company. That was great. I felt, OK, things are turning around. And I thought, well, why don’t I put myself out there?

This is my lovely assistant, Holly, here.

And that’s how I met Holly, my wife. And we hit it right off.

HOLLY STERLING: Jeffrey and I have an incredibly strong foundation in our relationship. It’s been since day one.

JEFFREY STERLING: No, you won’t.

HOLLY STERLING: This is not my forté.

JEFFREY STERLING: I’m kidding.

HOLLY STERLING: I like to eat.

We met via Match.com. That was our first date. Second date, but we said we are going to get married on the beach, barefoot. And that’s exactly what happened. We got married in Jamaica.

JEFFREY STERLING: So life is just feeling good. You know, I hadn’t heard anything. I had left that world behind, and I’m moving on. I had been getting calls from previous attorneys that they’re still looking into me, and that just didn’t make any sense to me. I was like, why? Shortly after that, you know, I receive information about there was a possible leak of information and that everyone’s pointing a finger at me. Evidently they had never taken me out of their sights. I was like, I need to find some help. So I went to a local congressman, Lacy Clay. And one of his staff members looked at me very succinctly and said, "You should just leave the country." And that, that hurt. Here’s a black man who works with a black representative, knowing what we’ve gone through in this country, and me trying to exert and stand up for my civil rights. You mention CIA to him, and the only response that I got was I should run away. Well, my mother didn’t teach me that. You don’t run away. You stand up for yourself.

I grew up in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, which is about two hours south of St. Louis, right on the Mississippi River. I was the youngest of five brothers. One went to the Army, one was in the Navy, and another went to the Marines. My stand-up-for-yourself, be-yourself sort of attitude, that was instilled to me by my mother.

HOLLY STERLING: Despite this extraordinary ordeal that Jeffrey and I have been through for over a decade, we both believe in standing up for ourselves, and we’ll face this ’til the end, no matter the consequences.

NARRATOR: January 2006. Reporter James Risen revealed information about Operation Merlin in his book, State of War.

JEFFREY STERLING: In 2006, they started coming to our doorstep.

HOLLY STERLING: They flew me out to Virginia, and I was—went to FBI headquarters and was interrogated for seven hours. 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. Just incredibly intrusive, incredibly disturbing. Your whole sense of security in your home and privacy was violated.

JEFFREY STERLING: We were wondering, well, the next thing has to be they’re going to arrest me. We go over four years of nothing, not hearing a word. If I was so dangerous, where have they been?

NARRATOR: January 6, 2011.

SCOTT THUMAN: Sterling is accused of leaking details about a botched CIA operation in Iran to New York Times journalists.

JEANNE MESERVE: He made his initial court appearance today in leg shackles.

ALYONA MINKOVSKI: Prosecutors allege that Sterling was trying to get revenge on the CIA when he served as a source for Risen about an agency operation meant to deter Iran’s nuclear program.

JEFFREY STERLING: And one morning I wake up, and I’m behind bars. And for what? I didn’t do anything. Actually, three days before the trial starts, and the government made a move that the judge did not like. Basically, the government said they couldn’t go forward. So, that day in September 2011, I mean, we were like, "OK, this is over."

HOLLY STERLING: Our lawyers gave some indication they thought it was done.

JEFFREY STERLING: But the government appealed, and that process took three years. And my wife had to sit with this sword of Damocles over our head. And in responses from the government, it was all about the approach to the reporter. To the mainstream press, it became the Risen case, and I’m the defendant. I’m the one facing the charges. I was convicted on January 26, 2015. It was a shock. I’m still in shock by the verdict.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: A former CIA officer faces decades in prison after being convicted of espionage. A federal jury in Virginia found Jeffrey Sterling guilty on all nine counts against him Monday.

NARRATOR: Five weeks after Sterling’s conviction, news broke that former CIA Director David Petraeus got a plea deal with no jail time for leaking top-secret information.

JESSELYN RADACK: Top three past CIA directors, including Leon Panetta, including General David Petraeus, including Brennan, have all leaked covert identities and suffered no consequence for it.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Very disturbing, not only the selective prosecution, but also the fact no African Americans on the jury. ... All of the evidence presented by the prosecution was circumstantial ... email and phone call metadata, without content of any incriminating nature.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: The conviction is a major victory for the Obama administration and its unprecedented crackdown on government leaks.

JEFFREY STERLING: They shut me up with my discrimination case, and they’ve closed the door with the criminal case.

RAY McGOVERN: They’re trying to make an example of Sterling. I don’t know whether he did it or not, but whoever did it did a service to our country, because our country needs to know.

JEFFREY STERLING: Thankful I can experience the tremendous amount of support that we received, not only locally, but, essentially, globally. It’s very encouraging.

HOLLY STERLING: We are surrounded by wonderful friends and family. Our family decided to make a GoFundMe account to assist with finances for Jeffrey and I. It’s been very well received.

We just—we love you, and thank you for your support.

SUPPORTER: You’re welcome.

HOLLY STERLING: It was over 50,000 people that signed the petition to drop the charges against Jeffrey.

SUPPORTER: All right, talk to you soon.

HOLLY STERLING: It’s been incredibly difficult to watch him not being able to change the circumstances.

JEFFREY STERLING: Marry me again?

HOLLY STERLING: Absolutely.

I married the love of my life and my best friend. My greatest fear is Jeffrey going to jail.

JEFFREY STERLING: I’m absolutely scared of me being sent to prison, particularly for something that I did not do. But I am comfortable with myself and the choices that I’ve made, because I know I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I like who I see in the mirror.

AMY GOODMAN: Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling in a piece produced by ExposeFacts.org. Joining us now is Norm Solomon, coordinator of ExposeFacts.org. He was in the courtroom on Monday when Jeffrey Sterling was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison. We only have a minute, Norman. What do you think is most important to understand right now with this sentencing to three-and-a-half years?

NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, there are a dozen aspects, but it’s really the continuation of a war on whistlblowing and journalism, to clamp down on the absolutely essential flow of information for democracy. The Obama administration continues its war on the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendment, on journalism and on whistleblowing. And the courtroom sentencing yesterday was part of the attack on our freedom and liberties, really.

AMY GOODMAN: And how it compares to what happened to General Petraeus?

NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, General Petraeus’s not even slap on the wrist, but fondle on the wrist by the government was hovering over the courtroom yesterday. And I think that the counterpoint of Jeffrey Sterling going to prison, three-and-a-half-year sentence, and Petraeus getting off totally is just showing the absurdity and tyranny, really, of what the administration continues to do. I should say that Democracy Now! airing this documentary this morning as a world premiere, extremely important, and I would urge everybody to go to democracynow.org and share this film, because we really want it to go worldwide. One more quick thing: Sterling Family Fund is essential for Jeffrey and Holly Sterling to really survive this transition into prison, and people can find a link to it at RootsAction.org.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Solomon, we want to thank you for being with us, longtime activist, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, co-founder of RootsAction.org and coordinator of ExposeFacts.org. Among his books, War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.


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