Ex-CIA agent insists on innocence while his national security case is stuck in limbo | St. Louis Public Radio

Ex-CIA agent insists on innocence while his national security case is stuck in limbo

Jun 7, 2013

This story was overseen by Scott Lambert, a professor at Millikin University. It was written and reported by his class that included Allyx Davison,Chelsea Dunmire, Margaret Eby, Ashley Eiland, Andrea Oesch and Denny Patterson.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Jeffrey Sterling, born into a family of seven in Cape Girardeau, seemed to have made it. A top graduate of Millikin University and Washington University Law School, he then went to work as one of the few African-American CIA agents.

Today, Sterling is the best-known Missourian to be charged with espionage for allegedly leaking secrets to a New York Times reporter. In his first interview since his 2011 arrest, Sterling said he lives in an unemployable hell, unable even to get a job at a funeral home. 

And he thinks he has been forgotten as the media rallies around New York Times reporter James Risen without paying any attention to him. Risen is the reporter who allegedly received and disclosed top-secret information from Sterling.

“The case is more about the media and journalism than me,” Sterling said. “I’m just a vessel by which they were able to get into it.

“In the D.C. sense, I’m nobody,” he said, “For the media, this is about James Risen. What problems has he had? My wife is ready to do things to him. The media only have an interest in protecting their own. I’m nobody...they don’t give a damn. Whatever happens to Risen, they will be right there.”

Sterling told his story recently to a class of journalists at Millikin. During the 90-minute interview, Sterling stated flatly, “I am innocent.”

Those words stood out, in part because much of the discussion of the case has assumed his guilt and focused instead on whether a reporter should be forced to reveal a source.

Sterling stands accused of leaking information regarding a failed CIA mission in which a Russian spy was to give erroneous plans for a nuclear bomb to Iranian scientists. Sterling is accused of giving this information to author Risen in 2003.

The CIA mission was flawed because the errors in the plans given the Iranian scientists did not outweigh the benefits that the scientists could draw from them – so Risen says in his 2006 book, “State of War: The Secret History of the C.I.A. and the Bush Administration.” Sterling was indicted for leaking information that posed an immediate threat to national security.

Sterling's case has received renewed attention in recent weeks because the government used some of the same investigative tactics as it did investigating leaks by the Associated Press and Fox News’ James Rosen.  The government made its case by subpoenaing Risen’s telephone and travel records.

Sterling is one of six people charged in the Obama administration’s prosecution of leakers and whistleblowers in national security cases. That is twice the number of leakers prosecuted by all previous presidents. In addition to Sterling, that list includes Bradley Manning, who provided information to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks; Thomas Drake, who leaked information about government waste in the Trailblazer Project; and John Kiriakou, who recently went to jail for disclosing evidence of U.S. waterboarding at Guantanamo. Kiriakou is currently serving time at Guantanamo.

The difference between Sterling and the others is that they admit to blowing the whistle. Sterling doesn’t.

“Sterling has always denied that he’s the source of the information,” said his attorney, Edward MacMahon. “You have to blow a whistle to be a whistleblower.”

Case in limbo

The legal case against Sterling is in limbo just as is Sterling’s life. Before the U.S. government can go forward against Sterling, it must find out if Risen can be induced to testify. Currently, the courts say that Risen doesn’t have to testify, but the government has appealed that decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals where it has been pending for months.

In the meantime, Sterling can’t find a job.

“It’s almost impossible for him to find work,” MacMahon said. “He’s been trying to get a job at 7-11 and he has a law degree. The human cost of this is unbelievable.”

It’s not just 7-11.

“I can’t even get a job with dead people,” Sterling said. “I tried to get a job at a funeral home, just as an usher, and they wouldn’t take me. Trying to find work has been frustrating.”

It’s difficult to find a job when you may have to go to trial any day as a traitor.

“This is a very interesting case to work on and to talk about but the truth is there is a person who has just been devastated by this case,” MacMahon said. “He has to tell prospective employers that he’s basically been indicted for treason. That’s not good for a job interview.”

Sterling lost the job he had before the indictment when he was an investigator for an insurance company, examining fraud cases. He enjoyed the work. But then the government indicted him and he left the job.

Now he waits.

“The tough days of the week are usually Tuesday and Friday,” he said. “Perhaps by Tuesday, people are awake enough to issue a verdict. If not, perhaps it will come Friday, as people are hurrying toward the weekend. Months of Tuesdays and Fridays with no news can have lasting mental effects on a person.”

Sterling was able to talk about what led up to the case. He talked about his early days working for the CIA, his love for its ideals, but also the incidents that led to the racial discrimination suit that he believes set in motion the events of the last decade.

When the CIA realized that its botched mission in Iran had been leaked, a search for the leak started. The government took the position that leaked information to the press was the same as giving that information directly to the government’s enemies. The government thought Sterling was the source of the leak.

“What’s interesting about this case compared to other similar cases is there is no correspondence,” MacMahon said. “In the Kiriakou case, there was an email.

"They don’t have anything of that sort between Sterling and Risen, but they’ve decided that he was guilty anyway.”

The government claims that it has over 200 emails between Sterling and Risen, but the two were in contact over Sterling’s racial discrimination case. 

Cape Girardeau to D.C.

It’s been quite a journey for Sterling, one he never would have dreamed of as a child growing up in Cape Girardeau. The youngest of seven boys, Sterling grew up determined to attend college and make something of himself. Blessed with a hard work ethic and good grades, Sterling looked for a life outside of Cape Girardeau.

“I always had an interest in the world out there,” he said. “I wanted to get away. Friends of my family in Cape were lawyers, and they both went to Millikin but I’d never heard of it. They said it was in Decatur and I thought it was Decatur, Georgia.”

After visiting, his choice was made. “It just fit,” he said. “I loved the small atmosphere here, and once I met the professors, it was all over. I loved the idea that at Millikin you got a chance to interact with the professors on a one-on-one level.”

Although Millikin is a predominantly white school, that didn’t bother Sterling. During his time at Millikin, he adapted to college life and became the only black member of the Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) fraternity.

From Millikin, it was on to Washington University. Again, Sterling excelled in the small college atmosphere. He graduated from Washington University and worked as a public defender in the St. Louis area.

“I was looking for more,” Sterling said. “I wanted to see the world and, one day there was an ad for the CIA. I applied.”

'Big black guy speaking Farsi'

Sterling enjoyed his job and spent much of his time traveling in Europe.

“I had to convince people to give up secrets about their country,” said Sterling. He was good at it, too. He said it helped that he “didn’t fit the mold of what people expected a CIA officer to look like.” With his shaved head and pierced ears, Sterling definitely did not look like the stereotypical operative.

After working the North Korean beat for a while, Sterling took aim at Iran. After years of intense training to learn Farsi and become a specialist on Iran and weapons of mass destruction, Sterling said he was thrilled finally to use all of his training and travel to Iran. Until, during a conversation with a superior, he said he learned he had been passed over for a project.

Sterling was floored.

Why was he being pulled off the assignment? He spent weeks training for this mission. He said his superiors were concerned that he would be unable to operate successfully as “a big black guy speaking Farsi.”

Sterling’s response: “When did you realize that I was black?”

For a man who had spent his life thriving in a world where his race was a secondary consideration, Sterling said it was difficult to deal with that.

When Sterling filed the racial discrimination suit, the government claimed that Sterling’s actions, complaints and arguments about being discriminated against were classified information. The government invoked the state secret privilege.  Sterling recalled the court telling him that “while we think there is merit to the case, it can’t go forward because of national security. This is a burden that Sterling will have to take on behalf of the country."

“Taking one for the team was not something I asked for,” Sterling said. “It was kind of like a kick in the gut.”

Sterling spoke to both U.S. House and Senate committees about his case, but got little traction. A man who actually did take an interest was U.S. Rep. Julian Dixon, a California Democrat. But Dixon died shortly afterward from a heart attack in December 2000.

Sterling refused to stop fighting.

“I was writing letters to a lot of caucuses, including the congressional black caucus, and no one actually responded,” Sterling said.

Since then, the case has stalled while the courts decide a crucial legal issue that has a major impact on the First Amendment and media privilege.

Until then, he waits.