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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 6/23/16

Jeffrey Sterling, a Poster Boy for CIA Discrimination and National Security Abuse

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Jeffrey Sterling.
Jeffrey Sterling.
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CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling has completed his first year in prison. Sterling was convicted in 2015 of multiple counts of espionage for, the government says, telling New York Times reporter James Risen about a botched CIA plan to provide Iran with flawed plans for its nuclear program through a Russian scientist whom the CIA claimed to have "turned." Even though there was no evidence whatsoever -- no emails, no phone recordings, no wiretaps, no nothing -- that Sterling had given Risen anything of the sort, he was convicted and sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison.

But the truth is far more complicated.

Sterling is African-American. That means a lot in the CIA, an organization that, historically, has trampled the rights of women and minority employees. Indeed, in 1995, the Agency was forced to settle a class action suit brought by 25 women, who said they had been systematically discriminated against simply because of their gender. The judge in the case expressed his personal consternation when he said that in all his years on the bench he had never seen a defendant so fully document the case against itself as the CIA had done.

The situation there is the same for African-Americans. With very few exceptions, they just can't get ahead. That's exactly what Jeffrey Sterling found. An expert on Iran, and fluent in Farsi, Sterling, a former operations officer, was set to transfer to Europe when a supervisor told him that the move would be rescinded. "We think you'll stand out as a big black guy speaking Farsi," the supervisor said. "When did you realize I was black?" Sterling retorted.

Without an operational tour, Sterling wouldn't have been eligible for promotion. He filed a civil rights complaint, which turned out to be one of the triggers that unleashed the CIA against him. In the meantime, Sterling was aware of the botched operation with the Russian and the Iranian nuclear program. He thought it was evidence of waste, fraud, abuse, and illegality, and he did what every CIA officer is taught to do -- he reported it up his chain of command. And like most whistleblowers, he was ignored.

He then reported his concerns to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the CIA's oversight committee. He was again ignored. But the CIA's leadership was angry that Sterling would air its dirty laundry on Capitol Hill. And they were angry about his civil rights complaint.

In the meantime, Risen published a book that included information about the botched operation. Risen has since said that he had dozens of sources for the book. While he and Sterling had spoken on the phone, Sterling has steadfastly maintained that the conversations were about the civil suit. But the CIA was looking for a scapegoat, and they were looking to punish the whistleblower.

CIA leaders asked the Justice Department to charge Sterling with multiple counts of espionage.

The trial dragged on for years. And through all those years, Sterling refused to accept a plea deal. Why? Because he was innocent. He certainly could have taken a plea to a reduced charge. He would have been out of prison years ago if he had. But he was determined to fight an injustice.

There were several things Sterling didn't know, however. One was that his former attorney apparently testified against him before a grand jury, offering speculation on a "motive." Another was that the Justice Department engages in a practice called "charge stacking," where they will charge a defendant with myriad felonies, including such "throwaway charges" as obstruction of justice, conspiracy, or making a false statement, and then later offer to drop all of the charges but one in exchange for a guilty plea. That's why, according to ProPublica, the Justice Department wins 98.2 percent of its cases. They're almost all the result of plea bargains. After all, why would anybody want to risk dying in prison when they can take a plea and be out in a few years?

The third was that the Justice Department engages in something called "venue shopping." That's where they seek to charge a defendant in the federal district that is most likely to find that defendant guilty and to give him the toughest sentence. In Sterling's case, as in the cases of all national security defendants, that would be the Eastern District of Virginia, where no national security defendant has ever won a case.

Sterling was living in St. Louis, Missouri, when he allegedly passed information to Risen. That's the Eastern District of Missouri. He was working for a company in New York, which is in the Southern District of New York. Risen lives in Bethesda, Maryland, which is the federal District of Maryland. And he works for the New York Times bureau in Washington, DC, which is in the Federal District of the District of Columbia. But Sterling was charged in the Eastern District of Virginia. He didn't have a chance. No national security defendant would have a chance there when his jury would include people working at (or with relatives working at) the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department, or at any number of intelligence community contractors. But that was exactly the point.

Justice Department prosecutors asked Sterling's judge to pass a sentence of 19-24 years. The length of that sentence would have placed him in a maximum-security penitentiary. Serendipitously, Sterling's sentencing hearing came only days after former CIA Director David Petraeus's sweetheart deal, where he got two years probation and a fine for leaking classified information to his girlfriend. The judge in the Sterling case said that she could not, in good conscience, give Sterling more than three-and-a-half years.

Sterling has appealed his conviction to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, an action that likely will take years. He has two-and-a-half years to go on his sentence, and with good behavior and halfway house, he'll likely be released by December 2017, well before the Circuit Court issues a ruling.

In the meantime, Sterling passes his days with murderers, child molesters, and drug kingpins in a prison more than 1,000 miles from home. There's no "justice" in that.

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John Kiriakou spent 14 years at the CIA and two years in a federal prison for blowing the whistle on the agency's use of torture. He served on John Kerry's Senate Foreign Relations Committee for two years as senior investigator into the Middle (more...)

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