- Interview by
- Mohamed Elmaazi
Jeffrey Sterling is a former CIA officer, whistleblower, and graduate of Washington University Law School. After he had filed a discrimination lawsuit against the CIA, Sterling was controversially tried and convicted in 2015 under the 1917 Espionage Act in the Eastern District of Virginia. This same act is now being used to target publisher and journalist Julian Assange. Should the WikiLeaks founder be extradited to the United States, he, too, would face trial in this same district.
A Farsi speaker and clandestine operations officer specializing in Iran, Sterling participated in Operation Merlin, a CIA effort ostensibly aimed at undermining that country’s nuclear program. But when he became convinced that safety protocols were not being followed, Sterling brought his concerns to members of the Senate and House intelligence committees.
While Sterling acted in line with whistleblower procedures, representatives failed to act on his disclosures. Yet when he was dismissed by the CIA, which he says was retribution for a discrimination lawsuit he filed against it, he was accused of passing on details of the botched CIA plan to then–New York Times journalist James Risen. In his book Unwanted Spy: The Persecution of an American Whistleblower, Sterling insists that these charges, carrying a potential one-hundred-year sentence, were themselves part of the retaliation against him.
In this interview with Mohamed Elmaazi, Sterling — who was among the CIA’s few African American officers — discusses the events leading up to his discrimination lawsuit, how he faced the threat of life imprisonment, and his criticisms of the prosecution against Assange. Sterling says that his own experience in the Eastern District of Virginia, and that of other government whistleblowers, proves that the award-winning journalist and publisher “will not receive an impartial jury” — and that his extradition to the United States would mean his certain conviction. The interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
Could you explain briefly the background to your arrest, prosecution, and conviction under the Espionage Act?
I was accused by the CIA and my government of improperly leaking or passing information to a reporter with regard to an operation I was involved in, with the CIA. It was called Operation Merlin, which was designed to thwart the Iranian nuclear program. I did no such thing.
It took years and years. I was fired from the CIA in 2002 — and supposedly the time frame for my passing this information was 2001 or 2002. I wasn’t indicted until 2010, and I was arrested in 2011. So a lot of time passed. I was accused and charged under the Espionage Act for illegally passing information to a reporter, and I went on trial finally in 2015, and I was convicted, wrongfully so. I was sentenced to forty-two months in prison. I served two and a half years.
There’s a possibility that the action taken against you was in retaliation for the discrimination lawsuit that you filed against the CIA?
Absolutely. I had filed a discrimination suit against the CIA because, as an African American, I was not given the same opportunities as the other officers around me. I did file suit in federal court against the CIA, but the government and the courts deemed that, if my suit were to go forward, it would pose a threat to the national security of the United States.
So I didn’t lose the case; I wasn’t allowed to go forward. I’m certain the actions afterward of accusing me of leaking information were absolutely in retaliation. I stood up to the CIA, who deemed that I was too big and black, and that I would stick out as a Farsi speaker and a security risk.
So I took issue with that, absolutely, and I fought against them. I was not allowed to continue, and for my actions and for that nerve to stand up against the CIA, they took the ultimate retaliation against me and charged me with violating the Espionage Act.
And, if I understand correctly, there never was any actual or specific evidence that you’d passed on information. The conviction was ultimately based upon the fact that you’d had phone calls with James Risen, who’d published a book years later about that botched CIA program, and it was basically assumed that the conversation you had with Risen involved you passing information.
Absolutely. Those phone conversations lasted no more than maybe a minute and a half. I had previous contact with James Risen, he wrote an article about my discrimination suit, and yes, during the trial, there was absolutely no evidence put forward as to when, where, and how I conveyed this information to the reporter. Interestingly enough, I had gone to the Senate intelligence committee to let them know about my concerns about the operation. One of those individuals, who was on the stand during the trial, had — subsequent to my time there, at the Senate — been fired from the intelligence committee for leaking information to a reporter. And the reporter happened to be the same one who they accused me of leaking information to. Yet that made no difference to the prosecutors, the judge, or the jury. As I’ve said, on numerous occasions, the only thing they proved — the government proved — beyond reasonable doubt during that trial was that I was black, and that’s it. That was enough, under our criminal justice system, to find me guilty.
What has life been like since you’ve completed your sentence?
It’s been very difficult trying to find work. Many applications here in the United States, you have to check a box if you’ve been convicted of a felony — and add in the CIA background, that turns employers off. So I have not been able to find any meaningful employment. Since then, I have actually been unemployed for over ten years now, since when I was arrested. It’s been very tough. I’m lucky in that I have a very supportive and strong wife in Holly, and I’m just making my way. And then, added on to that, the difficulties that everyone has felt because of COVID-19, it’s sort of enhanced a little more for me, but I always maintain hope that things are going to get better, and that I’ve survived this ordeal that I’ve been through and I will keep surviving.
You penned a detailed article with The Dissenter in which you decried the use of your case by the US government as a means to bolster their attempts at getting Julian Assange extradited. Could you describe your view of the US government’s prosecution of Julian Assange? Why did you feel it necessary to write that article?
There is, of course, the fear that Julian Assange is going to face a prison sentence counted in hundreds of years. The US prosecution and [UK Crown Prosecution Service], I believe, were using my case as a benchmark for the type of sentencing that he would receive, should he be found guilty. I found that abhorrent. Using a travesty of justice as an example of the fairness that Julian would face in a US court is absolutely ludicrous.
One thing that [the US government’s lawyer] left out [when citing my case as proof that Assange doesn’t risk a long prison sentence] is that the one time during my trial that the prosecution was absolutely livid was when the judge “only” sentenced me to forty-two months — and I put a caveat around “only.” The prosecutors wanted far more time than that, and they conveniently left that aspect out during their testimonials to the courts there in the UK. And I felt it necessary to speak out because, getting only one side of the story, you may get the sense that, “Oh, this is going to be okay for Julian if he’s in a US prison” or “the US justice system will be fair to Julian.” When they used my name, I had to take action to refute their claims and bring some truth to what they’re saying.
How do you respond to District Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s conclusion that, were Julian Assange to be extradited to the United States, he could expect to face an impartial jury, where he would be able to defend himself against the Espionage Act charges, in the Eastern District of Virginia?
I think the only way that judge could have come up with that assessment is if she was wearing blinders, wearing rose-colored glasses, to only look at things in the way that they’re being presented. That is absolutely not the case. Julian will face the same court that unfairly convicted me. He will not receive an impartial jury.
The jury pool from which they will be selecting in the Eastern District of Virginia is made up of individuals who all have some sort of tie — family, their own experience — to the intelligence community or the military apparatus there. And they’re familiar with security clearances. And so that already creates a bias because individuals are not going to want to do anything that may make them look bad, when it becomes time for their security assessment. These individuals know nothing about Julian Assange, other than what our politicians and prosecutors have been saying for years and years — that he’s a terrorist, for the most part.
Another key aspect is that there are certain constitutional rights that I should have been guaranteed during my trial — facing all of the evidence, and understanding and having all of the prosecution case put before me. Yet that was not the case. Mr Assange will have no guarantees of any constitutional protections, should he be tried in the Eastern District of Virginia.
I think that court has, time and time again, shown itself to be pro-CIA and pro-US government, and pretty much allowed the government to rule the case and take it in whatever direction they want. And that’s going to be to paint Julian in the worst light, with a favorable jury, and, overall, to go for a conviction.
My viewpoint is that, if he is extradited, he will be found guilty, and he will be imprisoned here.