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Whistleblower Faces Years In Prison for Making CIA Look “Dumb And Dangerous”

IMAGE: Former CIA case officer Jeffrey Sterling faces prison for leaking secrets to the press. Observers think his real offense is embarrassing the agency. Watercolor by Debra Van Poolen.
IMAGE: Former CIA case officer Jeffrey Sterling faces prison for leaking secrets to the press. Observers think his real offense is embarrassing the agency. Watercolor by Debra Van Poolen.
January 26, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. - A jury has convicted a former CIA case officer of leaking secrets. But many say the reason Jeffrey Sterling could face decades in prison is because he embarrassed the agency.

Sterling was ruled guilty of violating the espionage act for leaking secrets to a reporter for the New York Times. But Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, said CIA officials routinely leak classified documents to make the agency look good. In 2003, Solomon said, Sterling told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee about a botched agency Iranian nuclear operation - – and made the CIA look bad.

"He was a whistleblower," said Solomon. "As much as anything else, that's why the CIA is so eager to put him in prison."

Prosecutors argued that the case is about ensuring the security of American secrets. But Solomon pointed out that at least one important prosecution witness publicly made false claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to that invasion.

The trial came at a delicate time for negotiations on Iran's nuclear program. The CIA has been working to slow that program, with mixed success. A dozen years ago, Sterling went to members of Congress with his concerns about a CIA plan to supply flawed nuclear designs to Iran through a Russian engineer.

Sterling told members of the Senate he was worried the Iranians would be able to spot the flaws and use the rest of the designs. Later, the story of the botched CIA operation also showed up in a book by a New York Times reporter James Risen. Solomon says the revelation made the agency look "dumb and dangerous."

"It seems inept and kind of the 'gang that can't shoot straight,'" he says. "Dangerous because the CIA might have even helped Iran if it wanted to, to move towards developing a nuclear weapon."

Solomon said the specific charges that Sterling talked to the press about are entirely circumstantial. The prosecution lacked, as he put it, a "smoking gun." This may be the first time a CIA official has ever faced a jury verdict on criminal charges for talking to the press, said Solomon, adding that a recent Senate investigation into torture found that leaking to the press is standard agency practice.

"The CIA leaking classified information to make itself look good," he said. "Now involved in the prosecution of Jeffery Sterling for allegedly leaking information that made the agency look bad."

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - VA