Former Top Spy Calls CIA Leak Verdict an 'Injustice'

Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, second from left, leaves the Alexandria Federal Courthouse, Jan. 26, 2015, in Alexandria, Va., with his wife, Holly, second from right, attorney Barry Pollack, right, and attorney Edward MacMahon, after his conviction. Kevin Wolf/AP

Patrick Lang doesn't like leaks, not after decades as a Green Beret and a second career at the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he ran worldwide spying operations. But on Monday, he called the conviction of former CIA operative Jeffrey Sterling on espionage charges, for allegedly leaking classified information to a New York Times reporter, "an injustice."

Sterling, 47, a 10-year veteran of the spy agency, was accused of telling reporter James Risen about a bizarre, failed CIA operation to derail Iran's nuclear weapons program by providing it with deliberately misleading technical blueprints, supposedly from a disaffected Russian scientist code-named Merlin. (Sterling was Merlin's handler, or case officer, in spy jargon.)

Risen published an account of the operation in his 2006 book, State of War, calling it "hopelessly botched, and possibly backfiring by giving the Iranians blueprints that could be useful to them if they sorted out the good information from the errors," according to an Associated Press summary.

But the government failed to produce any proof that Sterling talked with Risen about the Iran operation, Lang and other close observers of his trial have noted. Prosecutors could show only that Risen and Sterling, an African-American, talked and traded emails after an appeals court rejected a race discrimination suit by Sterling against the CIA in 2005.

As Edward MacMahon, Sterling's defense attorney, said in court, "You're not going to see an email [relaying information to Risen]. You're not going to hear a phone call. It doesn't exist." He added, "What we really have is a cloud that needs to be lifted off Mr. Sterling."

On Monday the Justice Department hailed the conviction of Sterling, who worked in clandestine operations beginning in the 1990s, as "a just and appropriate outcome."

But Lang, a Middle East expert who was the DIA's first director of the service's foreign spying program in the 1990s, called the verdict a travesty.

"I was a consultant on the trial and I sat through all the testimony, and there was zero direct evidence that Jeff Sterling was one of Jim Risen's sources for the book," Lang told Newsweek. "It was entirely circumstantial and the poor [man] is going to go away for a long, long time."

Sentencing is set for April, although Sterling's lawyers have announced they plan to file motions to set aside the verdict and file an appeal. If the verdict holds, the former spy could theoretically face a 100-year sentence.

Sterling's is the latest in a series of cases in which the Obama administration has used a 1917 act meant to deter spies against alleged leakers, whom supporters hail as whistleblowers.

Lang, who was appointed to aid Sterling's defense team by the court, was never called to testify because, he said, Sterling's lawyers thought the government had utterly failed to prove its case and didn't need him.

But Sterling's race, he believes, was a factor in the decision by the all-white jury. "In my opinion, this guy has just been victimized in this—a black boy from Missouri, risen up from the gutter, all that stuff," Lang said.

Government prosecutors argued that the failure of the former operative's racial discrimination suit drove him to leak details on the failed operation to Risen.

But Lang, who worked on the case for over three years, disputed that. Sometime in 2003-2004, Sterling revealed details about the botched Iran operation, which arguably helped Tehran's nuclear program, to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is responsible for oversight of U.S. spying operations. Any number of staffers at the Senate Intelligence Committee, who gossiped among themselves about the explosive revelation, could have been Risen's sources, Lang said. The reporter, who fought a long battle against Justice Department subpoenas ordering him to testify in the case, has said he had "multiple sources" for his account of the operation.

Sterling "told the House Intelligence Committee about his [racial discrimination] problem in 2003," Lang said. "He then went to SSCI [the Senate Intelligence Committee], told them about Merlin and how it might have an effect on our foreign policy. A staffer told other staffers." Testimony from committee staffers during the trial backed up Lang's assertion.

Shortly after Sterling's trip to the Hill, Risen called a CIA spokesman, told him what he knew about the Merlin operation and asked for comment. The CIA talked Risen's bosses out of running the story on national security grounds.

Three years later, the reporter published an account of the operation in State of War.

"It had a lot more stuff in it than Sterling knew," Lang says. "After all, Sterling left the CIA in the middle of 2000. [The book] has data in it that only the CIA supervisor at headquarters could know." Lang theorizes that "the CIA got its act together and they formed a position based on what all these [CIA] people knew and they told Risen a version of what they wanted him to know."

The CIA's version was that Sterling had jeopardized a last, desperate chance to derail Iran's nuclear program. That was false, Lang said.

"In fact, the Iranians had never responded to [this donation of blueprints]," Lang said. "They never did that. There is no proof whatsoever that they did anything with that. And it was certainly not a viable operation in mid-2003. But the CIA led the White House to believe it was ongoing and was a big hopeful thing."

A CIA official did not return a call seeking comment. Risen also declined through his lawyer to talk about the case Monday.

The government alleged that Sterling had destroyed Merlin's usefulness by leaking the operation. But government documents made available during the trial showed that the CIA continued to pay the unidentified Russian—and his wife as well—more than $413,000 over seven years after Sterling supposedly blew their covers.

Another oddity in the case was the trial's setting in Virginia. Sterling lived in Washington, D.C. and later in his hometown in Missouri during his alleged criminal acts. Risen lives in Maryland, and the New York Times' Washington bureau is in the District of Columbia.

Yet the Justice Department filed its case in Alexandria, a favorite jurisdiction of prosecutors in espionage cases, because the jury was sure to be composed of people with close ties to U.S. intelligence and defense agencies. Prosecutors were able to file the case there because they argued that emails between Sterling and Risen passed through a server in Virginia. They also found a hairdresser to an FBI agent in the case, who testified she bought Risen's book in Virginia—supposedly showing Sterling's criminal activities extended to the commonwealth.

On cross-examination by Sterling's lawyers, however, she wasn't so sure.

"It was probably Virginia, but it might have been Bowie," a Maryland suburb where her boyfriend lived, she said, according to blogger Marcy Wheeler, who has decried government conduct in the case.

"You don't remember whether you bought the book in Virginia or Maryland?" the defense asked again.

She was sure enough for the judge. The trial went on in Virginia.