In a development that press freedom advocates say will have a severely chilling effect, a federal jury on Monday convicted former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling of leaking information about an operation aimed at hindering Iran’s nuclear program to a reporter for the New York Times.
The leak, which appeared in New York Times reporter James Risen’s 2006 book State of War, revealed that the CIA had passed intentionally flawed nuclear weapons blueprints to Iran via a Russian operative, in a program managed by Sterling.
Although Risen refused to identify Sterling as his source, the jury ruled that there was adequate circumstantial evidence to convict him. During the trial, prosecutors argued that this evidence included communications between the two men, Sterling’s knowledge of the operation, and Sterling’s dissatisfaction with the CIA, as demonstrated by his filing of a complaint of racial discrimination against the agency.
Sterling, who faces years and possibly decades in prison, has denied the charges. His lawyers argue that there is no evidence to convict him and that the information easily could have come from Senate staffers.
The conviction is a major win for the Obama administration, which has cracked down on whistleblowers — and the reporters to whom they pass their information — more than any other White House in American history. At the same time, many senior figures tied to leak probes, including former CIA chief David Petraeus, have so far escaped prosecution.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Obama’s Justice Department has initiated eight prosecutions under the Espionage Act for leaks of classified information — more than double the previous total number of such prosecutions since the law took effect in 1917. Most of those charged, however, have made plea deals and avoided trial. Former CIA officer and torture whistleblower John Kiriakou, for example, made a deal that saw Espionage Act charges dropped in exchange for a prison term of two and a half years. Former NSA official Thomas Drake, who passed along information about cost overruns on a secret NSA program, also managed to have the espionage charges dropped and walked away with a year’s probation.
The White House also has been coming after reporters. In 2013, the administration came under fire when the Justice Department seized phone records from more than 20 Associated Press lines, reportedly in relation to a leak about a CIA anti-terrorism operation in Yemen. More recently, Justice Department prosecutors spent a year trying to force Risen to reveal his sources, something the journalist refused to do even at risk of imprisonment.
Sterling’s was the rare whistleblower case that went to trial, and Jesselyn Radack, the director of national security and human rights at the Government Accountability Project, said his conviction will have an especially strong chilling effect.
“I’m frankly appalled that the jury would convict based on a purely circumstantial case,” Radack told Foreign Policy, calling the decision “a new low in the war on whistleblowers.”
“I’m frankly appalled that the jury would convict based on a purely circumstantial case,” Radack told Foreign Policy, calling the decision “a new low in the war on whistleblowers.”While she thought an appeal very likely, Radack said the conviction would both discourage government sources from disclosing important information to journalists and intimidate reporters who might otherwise try to dig up such stories.
“It’s ironic what he’s being convicted of,” she said of Sterling, “because in the prosecution, the government ended up revealing classified information itself.”
While the Justice Department dropped its subpoena of Risen just before the trial, she said she believed that move was one of political expedience, due to Risen’s prominence, rather than indicative of a stance against forcing journalists to disclose their sources.
Radack and others also argue that Sterling’s prosecution was particularly unjust because higher-ranking officials seem to be going largely untouched. Earlier this this month, the New York Times reported that — according to officials who themselves asked for anonymity because they weren’t authorized to share the information — FBI and Justice Department prosecutors had recommended bringing charges against David Petraeus for allegedly leaking information to a mistress. But Radack and others don’t believe that Attorney General Eric Holder will ever actually charge the former senior official.
Radack said the possible Justice Department recommendation that Holder charge Petraeus “was really meant to distract from how they’re going after Sterling with such vigor.”