House Democrats are pushing forward with their investigation into President Donald Trump’s abuse of power, sparked by an internal whistleblower complaint. This week on Intercepted: Jeffrey Sterling was indicted in 2010 on charges under the Espionage Act for allegedly leaking sensitive national security information to then-New York Times reporter James Risen. Sterling discusses his time as a CIA case officer and how his internal complaint about Operation Merlin, a half-baked CIA scheme that had tried to disrupt Iran’s nuclear weapons development, led to his firing. Sterling explains the discrimination suit he filed against the CIA and how there is no evidence that he was the source for Risen, who is now The Intercept’s senior national security correspondent. Sterling also shares what it was like to be charged under the Espionage Act and comments on the appalling hostility toward whistleblowers in the U.S. Sterling’s new book is “Unwanted Spy: The Persecution of an American Whistleblower.”
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City and this is Episode 109 of Intercepted.
George W. Bush: There can be no excuse for anyone entrusted with vital intelligence to leak it and no excuse for any newspaper to print it.
JS: In the spring of 2003, just after the invasion of Iraq began, my colleague James Risen, who was then a national security reporter at the New York Times, found himself in an office in the West Wing of the White House. Sitting across from him was the National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, as well as George Tenet, who was then the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Risen was there because he had planned to publish a story about Operation Merlin, a half-baked CIA scheme that had tried to disrupt Iran’s nuclear weapons development. Risen had information that Operation Merlin, if it had been successfully carried out, would have possibly achieved the opposite goal potentially helping Iran to actually advance its program. Condoleezza Rice warned the New York Times that publishing that story could get people killed, and she strongly urged the Times not to publish James Risen’s story. In declassified talking points from this meeting, Rice noted: “If you write it, you endanger lives and national security.” Risen’s editors at the New York Times sided with the Bush White House, and they spiked the story.
Bill Keller: The ground rules of the meeting, which we agreed to were that it would be off the record because the president wanted to present us with what he said were classified details about the effectiveness of the program that he thought would persuade us not to publish the article.
JS: Three years later, Risen wrote a book called “State of War.”
James Risen: I decided the only way the story would ever see the light was to put it in a book.
JS: He was able to finally write in detail about Operation Merlin.
JR: One of the stories that had been held by the New York Times that I had put into that was another story. It was about a crazy screwed up CIA operation involving Iran and its nuclear program.
JS: He was also intentionally vague about the sources of this highly classified sensitive information. Only James Risen knew the identity of his source or sources. And now James Risen had a serious problem. The government also wanted to know who he had talked to, and they seemed intent on forcing him to divulge his source.
JR: The summer of 2007, we got a FedEx letter from the Justice Department, saying we want to talk to you. We want all your information about your sources on this chapter.
JS: The government wanted to know so badly that they issued Risen a subpoena in an effort to compel him to testify in front of a criminal grand jury about who his source was for the Iran story. Risen refused to cooperate. He would fight that subpoena for the next seven years against both the Bush and Obama administrations’ Justice Departments. It turns out that the same grand jury which Risen evaded had been assembled to prosecute a former CIA case officer. His name was Jeffrey Sterling. Prosecutors allege that it was Sterling, who had told Jim Risen about Operation Merlin. Jeffrey Sterling served in the CIA from 1993 to 2002 where he was an Iran specialist. Trained in Farsi, Sterling was one of the very few African American clandestine officers at the CIA. This would become a central fact in the story of Jeffrey Sterling, particularly after Sterling filed an internal equal opportunity complaint about the spy agency’s alleged racial discrimination against him.
The CIA was no stranger to such lawsuits. In fact, a few years before Sterling made his complaint of blatant racism within the agency known, a judge had approved a nearly $1 million settlement to 400 CIA women on the basis of gender discrimination. Jeffrey Sterling was not so lucky. He eventually sued the CIA in court, but the government claimed that in pursuing his case, Jeffrey Sterling would necessarily have to reveal state secrets and so his lawsuit was dismissed. Soon after, Sterling was subjected to a security investigation and the CIA ultimately terminated his employment a month after 9/11. Sterling had a tough life after leaving the agency, contemplated suicide and he eventually started to rebuild his life. But the CIA and the U.S. government had not forgotten about him. In 2010, Jeffrey Sterling was indicted by the grand jury on charges under the Espionage Act, and he was accused of leaking sensitive national security information to James Risen of the New York Times. As Sterling’s trial unfolded, the overwhelming amount of attention paid to his case was in the context of the Obama administration’s attempt to force Risen to give up his source.
Rachel Maddow: This is not the first time that James Risen has been subpoenaed for his sources and his documents on this exact report.
Newscaster: James Risen, the New York Times reporter who faces potential jail time for not revealing a confidential source is calling out the Obama administration as hypocritical.
Newscaster: This, as New York Times reporter James Risen is speaking out. He says he’s been targeted by the White House for years in an attempt to get information about sources for a book he wrote.
JS: Sterling was ultimately convicted in 2015 and sentenced to three and a half years in prison.
Newscaster: Hours ago, ex-CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was sentenced to three and a half years in prison, two and a half weeks after General David Petraeus got away with two years probation and $100,000 fine.
JS: He did more than two years and is now, once again, a free man. He has no job, but he does have his liberty. Jeffrey Sterling’s story is particularly prescient today as we witness the Trump administration intensify the prosecution of whistleblowers.
Donald J. Trump: Who’s the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to a spy. You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart with spies and treason? We used to handle it a little differently than we do now.
JS: At the center of the current impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump is the role of a whistleblower about Trump’s alleged attempts to blackmail the new Ukrainian president into announcing an investigation into Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and his work on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company while his father was vice president. Jeffrey Sterling has written a memoir of his struggles with the CIA. It’s called “Unwanted Spy: The Persecution of an American Whistleblower.” Jeffrey Sterling joins me now. Jeffrey, welcome to Intercepted.
Jeffrey Sterling: Thanks for having me on.
JS: Describe how you ended up joining the CIA.
JSt: My third year in law school — and, of course, I’m wondering about what my next steps are going to be — I was reading the paper during lunch and saw an ad: “Join the CIA.” It was a great ad. I mean, there was a drawing of a guy looking over a canal. I wanted to get out there and see the world.
Announcer: Consider a career with Central Intelligence Agency. Be America’s first line of defense. Why work for a company when you can serve your nation? The CIA, the work of a nation, the center of intelligence.
JSt: My five brothers, three of them served in the military services. And so that aspect of service was instilled within me and I thought joining [the] CIA would tap into those areas that I’m fascinated with, international relations. So, I jumped at the opportunity.
JS: What was the first job that you took on?
JSt: My first real assignment after all the training was the Iran Task Force, and I was just thrilled to be there. Then, I went into language training. And then, hopefully after that, making the plans and aspirations to go abroad.
JS: What was it that interested you about working on Iran? And maybe explain to people what was happening at the time between the U.S. and Iran.
JSt: Growing up, I was that nerdy kid who stayed home and watched the news. And one of the biggest news stories going on at that time was the Iran hostage crisis.
Newscaster: The American embassy in Tehran is in the hands of Muslim students tonight. Spurred on by an anti-American speech by the Ayatollah Khomeini, they stormed the embassy, fought the marine guards for three hours, overpowered them, and took dozens of American hostages.
JSt: I was glued to the TV during that and reports in the newspapers. And so, I felt it was a dream come true for me to work on the Iran desk, the Iran task force at the CIA. And the tensions had been quite high regarding Iran. So, my work on the Iran Task Force was considered important. And I worked on some very important and very vital operations. I mean, I was the case officer, my job was to recruit spies. As a case officer, you’re a recruiter, essentially, you’re a gatherer of that intelligence necessary that policymakers are interested in, especially on Iran. So, I was quite active and successful, by the way, in the work I was doing with the Iran desk.
JS: What kinds of activities were you involved with to the extent you can talk about it?
JSt: Targeting individuals of interest, finding some way to get to that individual and maybe recruit that individual. So, I was involved in operations like that. Gather that in intelligence about Iran from the inner circles in Iran, because, of course, Iran was a place we didn’t have a presence.
JS: What were your first impressions of the CIA as an institution, once you were done with training, and then you’re there, you’re inside, you’re working?
JSt: Extreme pride in everything about the organization. I mean, I went into the CIA, not with my eyes closed. I knew the history of the organization, the controversies around it, but I felt, OK, I’m going in. I’m not going to let the place change me, but I want to be part of this organization. When I went in, I was just really taken by the mission. I was taken by what I was told: that I would be judged on my abilities. As I saw, that’s not the case.
JS: When did you start to identify problems or experience what you perceived at the time as the beginning stages of discrimination?
JSt: I guess I saw the seeds of it when I first got there. A Black employee who had been in there a long time asked me why I was there. What he was saying was, an educated Black man with talent, why are you here at a place where you’re not going to be recognized for your abilities? And in a way, I took a little offense to that. And that just made me even more determined, because, I said, well, if that’s your viewpoint — I mean, he was there at the CIA as a Black man, he had been there a long time. And my viewpoint going in was I had as much a right to be there as anyone else. And I’m going to be judged on my abilities, not the color of my skin. But that was kind of letting me know what I was walking into. But as my career progressed, I noticed things like assignments were being denied to me. I wasn’t being given the same tools as other officers in my same category. When I joined the Iran Task Force, I was the only African American on the staff. It’s a rather large staff but I didn’t look at that as a disadvantage for me. I just felt, hey, I’m another CIA employee in this effort. It was really apparent and quickly from the beginning, that I was being treated differently.
JS: Yeah, I’d like you to tell the story and you, of course, write about this in the book, but at one point early on in your career at the CIA, you were passed over for an overseas assignment. And you were told basically that it was because you stuck out. What was the assignment and what happened?
JSt: It was an assignment in Europe. And I asked my supervisors directly because I had had enough. I was, even overseas, I was seeing other officers receiving the tools that I was not receiving, receiving opportunities that I would either wouldn’t know about or find out about afterwards and basically told I was too late. So, things like that. And I asked, why was this happening with me and the CIA being what it is, they had no compunction, looked me in the face and say, well, you kind of stick out as a big Black guy speaking Farsi. And I was dumbstruck by that. My only response was, well, when did you realize I was Black? And why does that make a difference?
Then everything sort of started making sense and in a twisted sort of way for me at that point, but I wasn’t going to just sit back and let that happen. So, I made my complaints to them known and the answer was basically deal with it. And that opened my eyes to the realization that I did not want to believe was the case of how I was being treated as an officer at the CIA. Even with that, there was the decision, well, do I walk away from this place? Or do I make something of this? And I said, well, maybe I need to go to another area still focusing on Iran. So, I went to other areas within the agency. And I’m still getting that same sense of things, but I was determined to work hard and show them they’re wrong in this attitude about me because I had proven myself. I don’t look like Jack Ryan. I mean, no one would have ever suspected me of being with the CIA. So, I had no problems in going many places in the world that other officers would have had problems.
Things continued and I eventually ended up in New York and there, it was the same story. I was not receiving the same tools as the other officers. But I was expected to produce two, maybe three times more than them. And when I talk about tools, what I mean is cover, basic cover for someone in the CIA to be able to get into those avenues, where individuals will be who will have information of interest.
JS: Cover, just for people that don’t follow this closely, it’s like an alternative identity, supposedly, what your job is that allows you to work. You’re working for the CIA, but you’ll be a State Department attache or potentially someone from the military and they assign you a military cover. And what was the rationale for that?
JSt: I was a logistics officer. I was little more than a janitor, not to denigrate the logistics officers, but for me, having that sort of title — and I wasn’t even given credentials, I was just given a piece of paper that had been laminated, and said a U.S. government logistics officer — wouldn’t open no doors for me at all. Even despite that, I had successes, but you can only go so far without having the support of your organization. So, I got to a point where, OK, this is enough. So, many years I tried and worked hard to prove to these individuals, but it didn’t matter to them. All they could see was the color of my skin.
JS: What happens when you file your discrimination suit? What’s the reaction from the agency?
JSt: Feigned shock, and, of course, as with so many of these types of complaints, laying the blame solely on me to talk about, well, you’ve been given every opportunity as everyone else and I will point out specific facts, but then they would want to not talk about anyone else or any other situation. And I think there was a bit of anger as well. How dare I say that they discriminated against me? Look how good they’ve treated me and I was pointing out, no, look how bad you’ve been treating me. And then they go through their machinations, “investigation.” Mine was, there was no investigation, really. And then when that process is over, and of course, they ruled against me that I was not being discriminated against. Then you have the option to go to the Commission, the EEO [Equal Employment Opportunity] commission, outside of the agency, or you can filed in federal court. The crux of a lot of the activity discrimination against me, it happened in New York when I was here, and I filed suit in the Southern District of New York. That was shortly after 9/11. And this was also at the same time that I made my complaints known about Operation Merlin.
JS: Explain to the best of your ability with what you’re allowed to say what the program was and what you started noticing or your concerns.
JSt: The purpose of the program, as it was told to me was to thwart the Iranian nuclear program by instilling flawed plans for a nuclear warhead. Thereby, once they would use the plans, they wouldn’t work and they would stall their program by a number of years. I was given assurances that the highest levels of government had approved it, there were safeguards in place. They had worked with the national labs and put in a flaw in the plan that no one would be able to detect. And I was also told that the intermediary we were using — one of my main jobs was preparing this Russian scientist to get in touch with Iranians and make a deal to try to give them these plans.
JS: You’re talking quickly past something I think for a lot of people would be snatched straight from any number of espionage series they watch on television right now. You cultivated a relationship with a Russian scientist who was in the United States?
JS: One of your jobs was going to be to get this individual that you had cultivated as an asset, or a source, to try to then pass these fraudulent plans on to the Iranians in the hopes that they would use them and that it would stall their nuclear program.
JSt: Yeah, my job was to find the resources for this guy and teach him and train him how to approach and deal with Iranians, did a good job. But the light came on for me when he was first given the plans to review. When he saw the plans and we’re at this meeting, it was in California — this is in the book as well. He immediately saw that they were flawed. I mean, all the bells and whistles went off in my head, wait a minute, the whole dynamic of this has changed. I went to my direct supervisor who was there and I said, this is not what I was told. This could be actually dangerous because if the Iranians have these plans, and they see immediately that there was a flaw, I mean, scientists being scientists, they’re going to fix it and they’re going to make it work. So, instead of stalling their program, we may be speeding it up.
JS: What you noticed in the “flawed plans” was that there was enough real information that could be exploited by the Iranians, maybe even information they didn’t already have, that could be used to rather than slow the program, advance the program.
JSt: Absolutely. I mean, it was a complete set. It was a complete plan. The response to my concerns that were raised was “shut up.” We know what we’re doing. That immediately kind of said to me, oh, have you been looking at me just as an interloper or an outsider to this thing? And I made my concerns known to others within the agency as I was supposed to with concerns like that, that fear upon them all. And the operation continued. I, at that point, it seemed like my removal had started to remove me from that operation. At the same time, a lot of the pressures, the discrimination treatment intensified again, levying upon me requirements of my job three times more than anyone else, but not the same tools. And so it all coalesced, and I filed suits and then was basically removed from being an active officer in the CIA.
JS: At what point did you talk with the New York Times and Jim Risen? How did that relationship start or that meeting start?
JSt: After I was kicked out of New York, because of the suit I was filing, I met Mr. Risen to discuss my discrimination suit. He was very amenable to listening and he ended up writing an article about it. And even in the trial, the prosecution admitted that there was no classified information divulged in that article, and I also reached out to the House Intelligence Committee to, kind of, open the door or turn a light on to the discrimination that was going on at the agency. How I was being treated. I met with some staffers there, and that eventually went nowhere.
JS: Were you exclusively talking to them about the discrimination issues?
JSt: The main point was the discrimination and at that time, going through the EEO process, the agency was saying that I was a failed employee. I wasn’t living up to my expectations. But I pointed out to them the operations — as I was allowed to. They have their proper clearances to hear complaints, told them the aspects of my career and the operations I was involved in. I was like, well, they’re saying I’m a failed employee, yet I was involved in one of the more important operations at the agency. So, what is it here? So, I had to give them details. I wanted them to have the full picture.
JS: Did you tell them about your concerns with Operation Merlin specifically?
JSt: Absolutely, because as part of the discrimination, the moment I started complaining about it, then more aspects of discrimination started happening with me. And I just thought that was the picture that I needed to put together for the House Intelligence Committee as I was speaking to the staffers.
JS: I know that you can’t get inside of the minds or motivations of others at the CIA at the time, but if you truly wanted to engage in a successful intelligence operation, potentially to slow Iran’s nuclear program, and — it’s not like you were saying we shouldn’t be doing this. You were saying, look, we may be giving them information they don’t already have. No one at the agency said, “Oh, thank you, Jeffrey Sterling. Yeah, you’re right, we should amend this or look at it.” That didn’t happen at all? They didn’t change it as a result of this or —
JSt: Not at all, even the scientists who put the plans together didn’t see it as a problem. No one did.
JS: I’m not understanding how a scientist would be like, oh, no, this is no problem to give it to them. How do you know you were right?
JSt: From the indications that I was given by the Russian scientist. I mean, he was a scientist. He knew what the plans were supposed to be, what they were for, and he immediately saw the flaw. And of course, there’s been speculation about well, what was the real purpose of this? Was it, as I was told, to stall the plan, the Iranian effort? Or was it to basically just plant evidence of trying to develop a nuclear weapon program? I didn’t have those thoughts at the time. I’m going on the assumption of what I was told, what I was working with. And then when I see that that was not the case, the dangers of it immediately struck me. And that’s why I eventually went to the Senate Intelligence Committee just after we went into Iraq. I felt I couldn’t serve at the agency, but maybe I can serve in this way. Because I didn’t want our soldiers going into a situation that I could have been involved in to the point of a nuclear weapon, walking into a situation where an enemy would be using a nuclear weapon and no one would really have an idea about it or at the time, of course, there was a talk about dirty bombs. Well, those plans could have been used to help someone make a dirty bomb and I didn’t know where or what these plans had been used for. So, I made that, sort of, fateful decision to approach the Senate Intelligence Committee with my concerns.
JS: Did you view yourself as blowing the whistle or being a whistleblower when you set up these meetings with the House and Senate on the issue of Merlin?
JSt: At the time, no, I did not view myself as a whistleblower. I felt I was doing the right thing. No one that I — I’d taken the steps internally on both issues to raise my concerns or stand up for myself. They didn’t want to hear anything I had to say and everything I had to say I was wrong. So, I went through the proper channels to make those complaints. I didn’t view myself as a whistleblower. I think that realization came to me actually, when I was sitting in prison.
JS: At what point does an investigation of you begin?
JSt: After the meeting with the Senate Intelligence Committee and it’s maybe months or so after that, I hear, beginning to hear rumblings of an investigation, a leak and that all fingers were pointing at me. And I was shocked by that. How could this — what? And I said, look, I’ve got nothing to hide. I will absolutely speak to whoever wants to speak to me about this. I was shocked and I was offended that I would be accused of that because I had worked so hard with dedication to the agency and serving my country in that way and to be saying that I was, I violated the law in that sense, was shocking, and I was incensed about it.
JS: What was your understanding of what they were essentially at this point unofficially accusing you of?
JSt: They were unofficially accusing me of being a source for James Risen who eventually had written a book. But I guess he had some rumblings, there were some machinations going on about him writing an article that lo and behold, had information about Operation Merlin. That’s when I looking back when I start hearing about and getting indications that I’m being investigated for being the source for the article that he was going to write. I mean, immediately I’m on a defensive, of course, wait a minute, this is wrong. And it was shocking to me that, wait a minute, I went through the proper channels with this. How dare you say that I’m a source of this. So, it was a very surreal aspect for me, at that time.
JS: At what point then do you have your first official encounter with law enforcement about any of this?
JSt: I did volunteer actually to go speak with the FBI. I had them give me a letter, an immunity letter, basically, for speaking with them. I still have it. I’m gonna frame that letter. And so I spoke with them and told them exactly how I had spoken with people at the House Intelligence Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee. The House was about the discrimination mainly, but I necessarily had to talk about Merlin and I certainly talked about Merlin —
JS: At the Senate.
JSt: At the Senate. Now, this was I believe, 2002, 2003. I’d heard nothing after that. Nothing from them until they showed up at my door in 2006.
JS: You had no indication this was coming?
JSt: No, there were rumblings I had heard from my previous attorney that there was a grand jury. They were investigating and it was kind of confusing because so much time had passed. And I had moved on to a new career. Because when I was fired from the agency, I was pretty much blackballed from any organization, commercial or government within the intelligence community. No one would touch me and that was shocking to me because after 9/11, I was an experienced Farsi speaking case officer, but no one would touch me. I lost everything. I couldn’t find work. The money certainly ran out. Depression. I was stripped of my cover. So, I was going from a clandestine world to the real world, if you will. All my friends were at the agency. Well, none of them would have contact with me and I didn’t want to put them in a precarious situation so I didn’t reach out to them. So, there’s really no one that I could talk about my tribulations at the agency and attempted suicide. Obviously, it wasn’t successful, but you know, everything lost. So, I packed my car and I had to leave.
It was hard to go home with your tail between your legs, sort of things like that. And I would just go from rest stop to rest stop for a couple of weeks just to, just not knowing what to do, where to go, and not wanting to face the realities of things that had happened but I did eventually end up back in my hometown in Missouri. And from there I again trying to find work and find anything. Friends had recently had a baby. They lived in the St. Louis area. And for room and board, I offered to be their live-in nanny. So, I go from CIA case officer to manny, if you will.
JS: Did you cultivate the baby as an asset?
JSt: I think that baby cultivated me as an asset because just the smile and the innocence of a child helped me, pulled me up out of my misery.
JS: Maybe that baby helped save your life.
JSt: Definitely, got another job with health insurance company as a fraud investigator. I was working there and [was] quite successful. And I had entered a new relationship with my eventual wife, Holly. And I had kind of set these things aside. My discrimination suit had gone. I filed in New York, of course. The government immediately filed to remove the case because it would pose a threat to national security. The judges here saw that it was a prima facie case of discrimination and said it should go forward. Then the government made the move to change the venue because CIA was saying all of my employment activities and records were in Virginia. So, the venue should be moved. The court agreed to do that. The moment it was moved to Virginia, that court, the government rose the issue, again, of removing for national security. That court being what it is, they agreed. I tried to go to the Supreme Court, they refused to hear it. And so that was the end of my discrimination suit. But I was living and just trying to move on beyond all of that.
JS: And then what happens?
JSt: Come home one day, go out to get the mail and a car pulls up. And there’s the same two FBI agents I had spoken to years before. And I was shocked. I think “What are you doing here?” And everything just sort of fell apart within me. It’s like the past is reaching up and grabbing at me again. And how do I fight this? What is going on? It was a shock and disheartening as well. And I was angry. I was angry that they’re, you know, they’re still coming in. How many years had passed with all of this? And it was really smug, trying to be friends with me. Oh, we were worried about you because we think — and they showed me pictures of what they said was an Iranian — we think this person may be following you because of this book. And I didn’t even know at that time that the book had come out. I had no idea.
JS: You’re referring to James Risen’s book.
JS: Published in 2005.
JSt: Yeah, I had no idea. Of course, I wouldn’t let them in. They’re like, oh, can we come in and sit down? I’m like no, have you reached out to my attorney? My attorney with my discrimination case. And they said, no. Well, I’m not speaking with you. Then after that, I really hear nothing from them. And time passes, I getting more information about the grand jury, and that they’re pointing the fingers at me.
JS: Did you go out and get Risen’s book?
JSt: I went to a bookstore and just saw the book. I was like, OK, this is what they’re talking about. But again, hadn’t even known the book was out or anything like that. And the only reason I knew the book was there was because they told me.
JS: The FBI told you.
JSt: They told me and so after that I secured the services of another attorney Edward McMahon because this was now a criminal investigation. Not my wife at the time but Holly, this I believe was 2006. Holly gets a call from her attorney saying the FBI are coming with a search warrant. As soon as she hung up the call, the doorbell rang, and there was this team, this massive team of people, vehicles all over in the front of my house, descended upon the house and served the search warrant. I just couldn’t believe it. And there’s just nothing I can do about it. You feel so helpless and your home’s being invaded.
JS: What did they say as the underlying justification for the warrant?
JSt: They felt and this was the crux of their case, I had a document related to Operation Merlin and that’s what I provided to Risen and of course, during the trial, they never produced the document or even said I had access to it.
JS: When did the indictment come down on you?
JSt: I wasn’t indicted until I believe late 2010.
JS: Bush is out of office now. He’s served his two terms. Obama is more than a year into his term when you get indicted.
JSt: Yeah. The FBI had during the Bush administration, they had dropped the investigation. The lead investigator with the FBI admitted on the stand they had no evidence and two, the reports that she wrote, indicating that it made no sense for me to do what I was being accused of doing because that would have heard my discrimination case which at the time was continuing. So, I guess with the change of administration brought back a “new perspective” on what to bring. And there was certainly no new evidence in that intervening time.
I went to law school, usually your search warrant and indictment should come shortly after that. I’m talking almost five years. Late-2010, I underwent knee replacement surgery. So, I was home recuperating, and I was getting ready to go back to work and this was in January. Well, I get a call from my supervisor saying, asking if I could come in. And I said, yeah, and I was eager to get back to work, laid up with the knee replacement and all the hell involved with the physical therapy and that.
And I go to the meeting. And then I’m called up to security at our building, said there was something with my badge. And I go, “OK, we’re leaving soon. I’ll come up,” but then they became insistent. And I came up and there was the FBI agent and officers and I was arrested. And that really just showed the insanity of this whole thing. The whole world knew exactly where I was. I was at home. They didn’t have to make a show out of it. And my employer being complicit in that, that hurt. She was former FBI. So, I kind of got the sense that they probably were using her to keep tabs on me and they certainly used her and I’m sure they were, she was quite willing to then basically set me up. And they did a good show of it. The whole thing was just a show. I felt like it was all an out of body sort of experience and, it’s like, I moved on from all this. But they obviously didn’t, CIA, Department of Justice didn’t move on from me.
JS: What specifically did they charge you with?
JSt: Unauthorized release of classified information all in violation of the Espionage Act. And again, are they calling me a traitor?
JS: Yeah, a spy against your own country is what I think most people would think when they hear espionage.
JSt: Yeah, what have I done? And it all had the stench of the agency retaliating against me and the DOJ being complicit in it and the Obama administration adding the fuel to it.
JS: I want to read my colleague, Peter Maass who wrote a very in depth piece about your case and what happened to you. He wrote the following: “Until Barack Obama was elected president, the Department of Justice rarely prosecuted leakers. Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence during Obama’s first term, told The New York Times that a decision was made in 2009 to ‘hang an admiral once in a while,’ as Blair put it, to show would be leakers that they should not talk to the press. And it appears that Sterling’s all but shut case was brought back to life as part of that crackdown.”
JSt: It became obvious of that throughout because the trial itself was nothing but a show trial. The CIA was on their grandstand—look how we do our operations. And how dare Jim Risen write this story and how dare Sterling leak this information to him. I was the only person investigated. No one else was investigated. One of the staffers that I spoke to at the Senate Intelligence Committee, as disclosed during the trial was subsequently after the meeting with me, she was fired from the Senate Intelligence Committee for leaking classified information and one of those may have been to Mr. Risen. But that none of that seemed to matter. I mean, no direct evidence. There was never anything produced of when or where I supposedly leaked the information. No, absolutely nothing.
JS: And by the way, no one has ever proven that you gave Jim Risen anything.
JSt: No, absolutely.
JS: No, I just want to make sure that that’s clear to people because I think some people think that’s a given. No one has ever offered a shred of proof that you gave any classified information to James Risen.
JSt: Nothing at all. Nothing at all on that regard. And they certainly didn’t even present anything during the trial, to even show when, where, how.
JS: Yeah, I mean, if people want to go back and look at this, I mean, really you were convicted by a string of innocuous bits of circumstantial evidence that was woven into essentially a CIA conspiracy theory that masqueraded as a trial.
JSt: And it was an easy target. I think the Obama administration and Eric Holder saw this as this will be easy. We got this Black employee who lost his suit, that was there a perspective of it. I think my trial is reflective of an aspect of Barack Obama that I think a lot of people didn’t have. He wanted to be so far away from, appearing too Black and with Holder, I think for me, it was an easy target. It was easy for them, and then they could have that trophy to put on their mantle of another conviction. Condoleezza Rice was called to testify on behalf of the government. Really didn’t have — I had never met her. She’d never met me. So, what was she going to be testifying about? Just about the veracity of this, the operation which a lot of the agency individuals got on the stand and said was the most important in a generation at the agency. But Condoleezza Rice not only was supporting the government’s case — just by being there. She also supported I guess, the Obama administration aspect as well. Here’s an upstanding Black citizen, Condoleezza Rice, juxtapose her against this guy over here, this Black guy over here. We want this kind of African American, not that kind.
JS: Given all these experiences that you’ve had, any thoughts you want to share about this current situation with the impeachment inquiry being open with the discussion around the whistleblower, and now these foreign service officers who are testifying in front of the Congress?
JSt: I welcome the attention that whistleblowing has been getting on this and I love that the discussion is continuing, but I think this is also showing the opposite side of it, the negative aspects. There are supposed to be protections for whistleblowers. But are there really? The person made the complaint. And then immediately the White House and the attorney general were notified about it. Those were the subjects of the complaint. That’s the same thing that happened to me when I went to the Senate and both intelligence committees. They went directly to the source. And that creates a situation for whistleblowers, that the mechanisms there to protect whistleblowers really are there to identify the whistleblowers and open them up to criticism. When the subject of the complaint controls the dialogue about what is or is not a whistleblower, then there are no whistleblowers. There’s only leakers and spies.
So, I think and hopefully through all this, there’s more discussion going to be coming around. And hopefully the policymakers, our representatives in government will start giving you know, go beyond this window dressing for whistleblowers. It’s great the protections that they’re wanting to give this current whistleblower. But what about other whistleblowers? What about Edward Snowden? What about Chelsea Manning? What about Reality Winner? Where were the protections and interests there? No, there was the focus only on what the whistleblower did and not what was revealed. And what is important, whistleblowing is not about the whistleblower. It’s about that information that the public is interested in and should be educated about — about wrongdoings in our government. When you shift the focus to the individual bringing it forward, the whistleblower you’re just trying to distract from the overall issue. And that’s exactly what’s happening now.
JS: It’s a really powerful book and also an incredible and at times devastating American story. It really is. Jeffrey Sterling, thank you very much for being with us.
JSt: Thank you so much for having me on.
JS: Jeffrey Sterling is the author of “Unwanted Spy: The Persecution of an American Whistleblower.” That does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @intercepted. We’re also on Instagram @interceptedpodcast. If you like what we do on this program, you can support our show by going to theintercept.com/join to become a sustaining member.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.