Holly Sterling, the wife of CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling, presented the White House with a petition on Wednesday asking President Obama to pardon her husband. Jeffrey Sterling is currently serving a 3 1/2-year prison term for leaking information to New York Times journalist James Risen.
The petition, which Holly Sterling started in December, quickly reached 100,000 signatures thanks to sponsorship from both Change.org and RootsAction.org. “Justice at some point is going to be served,” she said Wednesday at a news conference in the National Press Club. “The truth must come out. He is innocent, and he has always been innocent.”
Jeffrey Sterling’s legal troubles with the CIA began in 1997, when he was denied an overseas post in Germany. When a supervisor explained that he would “stick out as a big black guy speaking Farsi,” Sterling filed a racial discrimination complaint. Shortly afterward, the CIA fired him. He tried, unsuccessfully, to sue the agency for discrimination and reprisal, but the government blocked the lawsuit by invoking the state secrets privilege.
While at the CIA, Sterling also blew the whistle on a botched CIA operation called Operation Merlin. He told staffers at the Senate Intelligence Committee that the CIA had inadvertently sent nuclear secrets to Iran, and that they should investigate the incident.
Speaking alongside Sterling’s wife on Wednesday, fellow CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou said that Sterling “did exactly what he was supposed to do when he encountered a program of waste, fraud, abuse, or illegality.”
In 2006, Risen published a book that contained information about Operation Merlin. According to Risen, the CIA convinced a Russian scientist to slip fatally flawed nuclear blueprints to Iran. When the scientist spotted the problem and explained it to the Iranians, they were able to obtain useful information from the remainder of the blueprint.
The Department of Justice quickly homed in on Sterling as the suspected source, both because of Sterling’s legal disclosures to Congress, and because Sterling knew Risen, who had written about Sterling’s discrimination lawsuit back in 2002.
Sterling’s trial received national attention due to a legal showdown between Risen and the Department of Justice, which thrust Risen into the spotlight as an icon of press freedom. In 2008, the Bush administration subpoenaed Risen to testify against his sources on Operation Merlin, and Risen refused. The Obama administration upheld the subpoena, trying to pressure Risen into incriminating Sterling. Finally, in 2015, the Department of Justice withdrew the subpoena right before Sterling’s trial.
At trial, federal prosecutors relied almost entirely on Risen’s phone and email records, which showed that Sterling had communicated with him up until 2005. But the prosecutors did not cite the content of those communications, leading the BBC to call it a “trial by metadata.”
The government argued that Sterling was not a whistleblower, but a “disgruntled man who hated the CIA and wanted to settle a score.”
In June, Sterling went to prison in Colorado – 900 miles from the couple’s home in St. Louis. According to Holly Sterling, legal fees have devastated the couple’s finances, but crowd-funded donations prevented them from losing their house.
According to Kiriakou, the government set out to make an example of Sterling. “The point wasn’t just to imprison Jeffrey,” he said. “It was to ruin him. Utterly ruin him. The point was to demonize him. And frighten any other would-be whistleblowers.”
Sterling’s conviction was part of a broader campaign by the Obama administration to crack down on whistleblowers. Since the Obama administration took office, it has prosecuted nine people for disclosures to the press – three times as many as all previous presidents combined.
Holly Sterling read out a statement from her husband: “I took a stand, and followed the rules. For this I was targeted, and finished.”
Top photo: Holly Sterling, fourth from right, joins press freedom activists in front of the White House, with John Kiriakou standing behind.