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Whistleblower Faces Years In Prison for Making CIA Look "Dumb and Dangerous"

IMAGE: Former CIA case officer Jeffrey Sterling could face 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 could face prison for leaking secrets to the press. Observers think his real offense is embarrassing the agency. Watercolor by Debra Van Poolen.
January 27, 2015

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

Sterling was found guilty of violating the Espionage Act for passing secrets to a New York Times reporter. But Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, says CIA officials routinely leak classified data to make the agency "look good."

According to Solomon, Sterling told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2003 about a botched Iranian nuclear operation which had been planned by the CIA. In doing do, says Solomon, the agency came off looking bad.

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

Prosecutors argue the case is about ensuring the security of American secrets. But Solomon points out an important prosecution witness publicly made false claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The trial also comes at a delicate time for negotiations on Iran's nuclear program. The CIA has been working to slow that program, with mixed success. In his testimony 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 Iran 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 like the gang that can't shoot straight," he says. "It seems dangerous because the CIA might have even helped Iran, if it wanted to, move towards developing a nuclear weapon."

Solomon says the specific charges Sterling talked about to the press are entirely circumstantial. The prosecution lacks, as he puts it, a "smoking gun." In addition, he says this may be the first time a CIA official has ever faced prison for talking to the press. He says a recent Senate investigation into torture found that leaking to the press is standard agency practice.

"The CIA leaks classified information to make itself look good," he says. "Now they're involved in the prosecution of Jeffrey Sterling for allegedly leaking information that made the agency look bad."

Sterling is free pending sentencing April 24.

Melinda Tuhus, Public News Service - PA