The sentencing of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling on May 11 for espionage ends one phase of a long ordeal and begins another. At age 47, he has received a prison term of 42 months—three and a half years—after a series of ever more improbable milestones.
The youngest of six children raised by a single mother, Sterling was the only member of his family to go to college. He graduated from law school in 1993, worked briefly at a public defender’s office, and then entered the CIA, where he became one of the agency’s only African-American case officers. In August 2001, Sterling became the first one ever to file a lawsuit against the CIA for racial discrimination. (His suit, claiming that he was denied certain assignments because of his race, was ultimately tossed out of court on grounds that a trial would jeopardize government secrets.) Soon afterward, the agency fired him.
Sterling returned to his home state of Missouri and restarted his life. After struggling, he found a professional job and fell in love. But the good times were short-lived. One day in 2006, the FBI swooped in for a raid, seizing computers and papers at the small home that Sterling and his fiancée shared in a suburb of St. Louis. Slowly, during the next four years, without further action from the government, the menacing legal cloud seemed to disperse. But suddenly, a few days into 2011, Sterling was arrested for the first time in his life—charged with betraying his country.
The indictment included seven counts under the Espionage Act, the 1917 law that President Obama’s Justice Department has used to prosecute more whistleblowers than all other administrations combined. The key charges accused Sterling of “unauthorized disclosure of national defense information,” alleging that he gave details of a secret CIA operation to a journalist while falsely characterizing it in negative terms. The government contended that Sterling should remain in custody until trial because—with “underlying selfish and vindictive motivations”—he would try to “retaliate in the same deliberate, methodical, vindictive manner.” A judge rejected that argument and released him on bond. But Sterling’s arrest had triggered his immediate firing by Anthem Healthcare (where his work as a medical fraud investigator won a national award for uncovering $32 million in bogus charges), and suddenly even low-wage employment was out of reach. As a breadwinner, Sterling was toast. His wife, Holly, a social worker, continued to bring in a modest income as they waited for the trial.
The wait lasted four years. Most of the pre-trial legal maneuvers had to do with James Risen, the New York Times reporter whose 2006 book, State of War, had spurred the FBI leak investigation that ended with Sterling’s arrest. The book included a chapter with classified information about Operation Merlin, a CIA program that in 2000 provided Iran with flawed design information for a nuclear weapon component. Despite subpoenas and jail threats, Risen kept refusing to identify any confidential source. The government prevailed on appeal with its claim that journalists have no right to such a refusal, but—after growing pushback from press-freedom advocates and worsening optics in the court of public opinion—the Justice Department finally gave up on forcing Risen to cooperate. (For background, see Norman Solomon and Marcy Wheeler, “The Government War Against Reporter James Risen,” October 8, 2014.)