Authorities arrest area man, ex-CIA agent, on charges of passing secrets
A Washington University Law School graduate who served in the CIA in the 1990s was arrested on Thursday for allegedly passing secrets to a national newspaper reporter. The reporter apparently was James Risen of the New York Times and the secrets reportedly concerned a botched CIA operation directed at Iran's nuclear program.
Jeffrey Alexander Sterling, 43 of O'Fallon, Mo., was arrested Thursday morning on a 10-count indictment unsealed in Virginia. It accuses him of the unauthorized disclosure of national security information and obstruction of justice. Later in the day he appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Terry I. Adelman in St. Louis. Adelman scheduled a detention hearing for 2 p.m., Monday, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.
The Washington Post reported that Sterling's attorney denied the allegations. "He has always maintained his innocence throughout the course of this entire investigation," said Edward B. MacMahon Jr. "We'll seek to prove that in court."
"The CIA deplores the unauthorized disclosure of classified information," the CIA said in a statement issued Thursday.
The New York Times refused to comment to the Associated Press.
"I never testified and never provided the government with any information," he told the Times. "I never met with prosecutors and never reached any agreement with them."
People Magazine, which wrote a profile on Sterling a decade ago when he began to fall out with the CIA, reported that he attended Washington University Law School and worked in the St. Louis public defenders' office. Sterling grew up in Cape Girardeau as the youngest of six sons of a retired municipal clerk, Helen Sterling, the story stated. He attended Milliken University in Illinois.
Sterling's public online LinkedIn profile lists him as a senior investigator for WellPoint Inc., which specializes in insurance fraud investigations.
The indictment accuses Sterling of having leaked the secret information in retaliation for the CIA's refusal to settle a race discrimination complaint and its refusal to allow him to write his memoirs. Sterling, who is African American, claimed that the CIA discriminated against him and held him to a higher standard than white agents.
According to People magazine, Sterling learned Farsi after entering the CIA and was assigned to Bonn to recruit Iranian agents. But he was criticized for not having recruited more Iranian operatives. He said he was told that he couldn't be as effective as an agent because he was too big and black, according to the People profile.
After the CIA refused to settle the race case, Sterling filed a lawsuit in federal court. The federal appeals court in Richmond, Va. agreed with the government that the case could not proceed because state secrets would have to be disclosed at trial. Among the secrets were where Sterling had been assigned and where other witnesses from the CIA had been assigned. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the state secrets defense.
The indictment states that Sterling then, in retaliation, contacted a national newspaper and met with a reporter from the paper in connection with a possible article to be written in early 2003. The information later was published in a book in 2006, the indictment states.
Risen, the New York Times reporter who disclosed the warrantless wiretaps of the Bush administration, wrote a book in 2006: "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration." Chapter nine of that book described how the CIA had used a former Russian nuclear scientist to provide the Iranians with a flawed design for a nuclear detonating device.
The Russian scientist met with an Iranian official in Vienna in February 2000. The scientist spotted the flaw in the plans, Risen reported, but the CIA went ahead with the operation. The scientist decided to alert the Iranians to the problem so that he would be taken seriously. Risen said the operation had been reckless and could have given Iranians valuable information. He wrote that a CIA case officer told a congressional intelligence committee about the problems believing that the agency had "assisted the Iranians in joining the nuclear club."
The Obama administration -- like the Bush administration -- had tried to force Risen to disclose his source for the information. Risen had refused, according to the his lawyer. (Click here to read the New York Times account of Risen's subpoena.)
Risen declined to comment to the New York Times about whether Sterling was his source, but said that he had provided no assistance to prosecutors. He told the Times that Judge Leonie Brinkema, a federal judge in Alexandria, Va., quashed the subpoena of him in November.
The indictment charges Sterling with six counts of unauthorized disclosure of national defense information and one count each of unlawful retention of national defense information, mail fraud, unauthorized conveyance of government property and obstruction of justice. The obstruction of justice relates to Sterling's alleged attempts in 2006 to erase emails on his contacts with Risen.
Each charge of unauthorized disclosure and retention of national defense information carries a maximum of 10 years in prison. Mail fraud carries a maximum penalty of 20 years. Unauthorized conveyance of government property carries a maximum of 10 years in prison. Obstruction of justice carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. There also could be substantial fines of up to $250,000 a charge.
The U.S. attorney's office in Virginia maintained that "Sterling placed at risk our national security and the life of an individual working on a classified mission." U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride said in a statement, "Our national security requires that sensitive information be protected. The law does not allow one person to unilaterally decide to disclose that information to someone not cleared to receive it. Those who handle classified information know the law and must be held accountable when they break it."
Robert Chesney, an expert on national security law who writes a blog Lawfare, noted that the prosecution should be distinguished from the WikiLeaks case.
"Viewing this in context of the larger ongoing Wikileaks controversy," he wrote, "I think the important point is that this is a prosecution of the leaker rather than the leakee, and that as a general rule this is much the preferable way to proceed in order to minimize the many policy and legal obstacles that would otherwise arise"
Chesney's blog summarizes the actions that Sterling is alleged to have taken:
- stealing classified documents and other information from the CIA and unlawfully retaining those documents without the authority of the CIA;
- communicating by telephone, via e-mail and in person with the author to arrange for the disclosure of or to disclose classified information to the author;
- meeting with the author in person to disclose classified information orally to the author and to provide documents containing classified information to the author for review or use;
- characterizing the classified information in a false and misleading manner as a means of inducing the author to write and publish a story premised on that false and misleading information;
- deceiving and attempting to deceive the CIA into believing that he was a former employee adhering to his secrecy and non-disclosure agreements; and
- deliberately choosing to disclose the classified information to a member of the media, knowing that such an individual would not reveal his identity, thereby concealing and perpetrating the scheme.
William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. To reach him, contact Beacon issues and politics editor Susan Hegger.