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Truthdigger of the Week: CIA Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling, in Prison and Fighting for His Life

Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Assistant Editor and Poetry Editor
Natasha Hakimi Zapata is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American Literature at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain. She also holds a Creative Writing M.F.A. from Boston University and both a…
Natasha Hakimi Zapata

    Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling leaves the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va., with his wife, Holly, after being convicted in 2015 on nine counts of leaking classified information to a New York Times reporter. (Kevin Wolf / AP)

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

When Jeffrey Sterling was in his last year of law school, he was drawn to a newspaper ad that announced the promise of travel while serving the country as an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency. Part of a family of military service members, Sterling dreamed that the CIA would allow him to give back to the United States. Little did he know that his employment at the agency, which began in 1993 and ended in 2001, would turn into a nightmare of racial discrimination and persecution that would last decades.

Early in his career at the CIA, Sterling began to sense that he was treated differently because of his skin tone, a fact highlighted to him when he was pulled from an assignment in Germany with the explanation that “a black man speaking Farsi” would seem conspicuous. Sterling says this is just one example of the many ways his spy agency career was held back because of his race. Years of mistreatment led him to become the first African-American to file a racial discrimination suit against the CIA, an act of bravery the U.S. government would make him pay dearly for.

When, after the 9/11 attacks, Sterling felt inspired to help the agency tackle terrorism, he offered to drop his suit. Instead of enthusiasm for his dedication, he was met with a dismissal. As one of his colleagues put it, quoting a song by the late Jim Croce, he had “tugged on Superman’s cape.” The Intercept’s Peter Maass explains the ways in which Sterling’s heroism got under the CIA’s skin in a thorough piece about the whistleblower’s ordeal, “How Jeffrey Sterling Took On the CIA—and Lost Everything.”

In 2001, as he was leaving the agency, he filed a federal lawsuit that said the CIA retaliated against him for making an internal discrimination complaint, and that he had indeed faced a pattern of discrimination there. The suit was dismissed by a judge after the CIA successfully argued in pre-trial motions that a trial would expose state secrets by disclosing sources and methods of intelligence-gathering. An appeals court upheld that ruling, though it noted that the dismissal “places, on behalf of the entire country, a burden on Sterling that he alone must bear” by being deprived of his right to a trial. The dismissal spared Sterling’s supervisors from testifying about their interactions with him. The government has not provided specific responses, in court or to the media, about his accusations of racial discrimination, other than to generally state that he faced none.

He tugged on the CIA’s cape in other ways. He wrote a memoir, tentatively titled Spook: An American Journey Through Black and White, and submitted chapters for pre-publication review. According to a lawsuit Sterling filed in 2003, the CIA determined that his manuscript contained classified information that should not be published, and demanded that he add information that, his suit said, was “blatantly false.” Facing a tough legal battle with a presiding judge who seemed sympathetic to the CIA, Sterling eventually agreed to drop the suit. His manuscript has not been published.

Also in 2003, Sterling met staffers from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to let them know his concerns about the mismanagement of a classified program he worked on at the agency. Merlin, as the program was called, involved the CIA giving Iran faulty nuclear blueprints. If the blueprints were used, Iran’s nuclear program would be delayed. The blueprints were given to the Iranians by a Russian scientist who lived in the United States, and Sterling was his CIA handler. The CIA has said the program worked well, but Sterling told the committee staffers it was botched and that the Iranians learned the blueprints were flawed; the Iranians might have gained nuclear insights from the accurate parts.

After his career at the agency was terminated, he struggled to find employment for years, during which he ended up selling his belongings and sleeping in his car until he was able to work for friends as a “manny.” Against all odds, Sterling was eventually able to rebuild his life, working in health insurance and marrying Holly, a social worker.

Sterling had begun to feel that his chapter with the CIA was finally behind him when the book “State of War,” by New York Times journalist James Risen, was published in 2006. It included a chapter detailing the very program that Sterling had denounced to the Senate. The former CIA agent then became an FBI target—agents tried to search his home and interrogated him and his wife. And yet, after this intrusion, four years passed in torturous waiting until the U.S. government again decided to persecute Sterling, this time under the draconian Espionage Act, which the Obama administration has mercilessly used to suppress more whistleblowers than have all other presidential administrations combined.

Sterling became another “first” in our nation’s history books when, despite entirely circumstantial evidence tying him to Risen, he became the first person to be convicted under the Espionage Act. The whistleblower was convicted of nine felony counts in a trial in Virginia, proceedings which investigative reporter Marcy Wheeler told The Real News Network had a number of shortcomings, including the facts that the jury did not include a single black person, the trial took place in the CIA’s “backyard” and, while some crucial evidence was withheld, other evidence was introduced without proper procedures being followed.

At no point during or since the trial has Sterling said he was guilty of the charges against him. If anything, he went through the appropriate procedures in place for whistleblowers by testifying before the Senate. But sadly, his case illustrates how even when government officials attempt to use the avenues in place, they are often ignored or, worse, persecuted for their efforts. What’s more, CIA heads like Gen. David Petraeus, who leaked more top-secret information to his partner than Sterling was accused of doing, went completely unpunished. The same Intercept piece explains this discrepancy:

Until Barack Obama was elected president, the Department of Justice rarely prosecuted leakers. Obama promised, as a candidate, to create the most transparent administration ever, but he has presided over more leak prosecutions under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence during Obama’s first term, told the Times that a decision was made in 2009 to “hang an admiral once in a while,” as Blair put it, to show would-be leakers they should not talk to the press. The Justice Department did not charge high-level officials, however; mid-level officials were the principal targets, and it appears that Sterling’s all-but-shut case was brought back to life as part of the crackdown.

Sterling was eventually sentenced to 3½ years in prison in 2015 and is now suffering in a Colorado detention center where he is being denied critical health care for a heart condition. Fellow CIA whistleblower and Truthdig contributor John Kiriakou reported Monday that Sterling appeared to have suffered a heart attack in prison, a year into his sentence. Kiriakou outlined Holly Sterling’s efforts to get her husband the appropriate medical care, writing:

Holly Sterling has been tireless in her work to get her husband to a cardiologist. She asked Jeffrey’s sentencing judge, Leonie Brinkema, to intervene. Brinkema refused. She then enlisted the support of Norman Solomon’s Roots Action, which has asked supporters to call Warden Deborah Denham at 303-763-4300. In addition to the warden, Solomon recommends contacting the Bureau of Prisons’ North Central Regional Office by calling Sara M. Revell at 913-621-3939 or writing to her at ExecAssistant@bop.gov. Our grass-roots pressure may be the only thing that gets Jeffrey Sterling to a cardiologist. It could save his life.

Sterling, like Kiriakou, has become an example of what the U.S. government is willing to do to the heroes who stand up for what the nation should stand for, and how it will persecute whistleblowers at all costs to stem leaks that damage its image. Sterling’s case has been seen as an attempt to divide journalists and whistleblowers, as activist Norman Solomon told Amy Goodman on “DemocracyNow!” shortly after a film about Sterling on which he collaborated was released. You can watch the full film, “The Invisible Man,” below.

To raise awareness, encourage grass-roots efforts to help Sterling receive proper medical attention in prison and a pardon from President Obama, and also to remind readers of the courage and determination the former CIA agent dedicated to bettering our country despite the heavy price he was ultimately forced to pay, Jeffrey Sterling is our Truthdigger of the Week.

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