Reprinted from Consortium News
CIA seal in lobby of the spy agency's headquarters.
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A dozen years before his recent sentencing to a 42-month prison term based on a jury's conclusion that he gave classified information to a New York Times journalist, former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was in the midst of a protracted and fruitless effort to find someone in Congress willing to look into his accusations about racial discrimination at the agency.
ExposeFacts.org has obtained letters from Sterling to prominent members of Congress, beseeching them in 2003 and 2006 to hear him out about racial bias at the CIA. Sterling, who is expected to enter prison soon, provided the letters last week. They indicate that he believed the CIA was retaliating against him for daring to become the first-ever black case officer to sue the agency for racial discrimination.
Sterling recalls getting special firing treatment in early 2002 from John Brennan, then a high-ranking CIA executive, now the agency's director and a close adviser to President Barack Obama: "He personally came down to the administrative office to tell me that I was fired. Someone told me that, 'Well, you pulled on Superman's cape.'"
Soon after the CIA fired him, the New York Times, People magazine and CNN reported on Sterling's lawsuit charging the CIA with racial discrimination. But Sterling found no support from civil rights organizations.
In a letter dated Jan. 9, 2003, to Al Sharpton's National Action Network, Sterling recalled joining the CIA in 1993 "to serve my country" -- "but the clubby and racially exclusive atmosphere in the Agency denied me such an opportunity."
The letter went on: "The Agency taught me Farsi and I was trained as an expert against Iranians and terrorists. I proved my abilities as a case officer, however, when the time came for my use in the field or to move up in the ranks of officers, I was 'too big and too black.' That and other discriminatory treatment I received during my time at the Agency are the impetus behind my suit."
In an interview for the new documentary "The Invisible Man: NSA Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling" (which I produced on behalf of ExposeFacts), Sterling told the film's director Judith Ehrlich that CIA leaders quickly focused on him when they learned about a leak of classified information to Times reporter James Risen in the early spring of 2003. (At the emphatic request of the Bush White House, the story was spiked by the Times leadership and did not reach the public until a book by Risen appeared in January 2006.)
"They already had the machine geared up against me," Sterling says in the film. "The moment that they felt there was a leak, every finger pointed to Jeffrey Sterling." He added: "If the word 'retaliation' is not thought of when anyone looks at the experience that I've had with the agency, then I just think you're not looking."
His letters to members of Congress, being reported here for the first time, show that Sterling was anticipating severe retribution as early as mid-2003 -- more than seven years before he was indicted on numerous felony counts, including seven under the Espionage Act, for allegedly informing Risen about the CIA's Operation Merlin. That operation had given flawed design material for a nuclear weapon component to the Iranian government in early 2000. According to Risen's reporting, Merlin "may have been one of the most reckless operations in the modern history of the CIA."
While the prosecution put on 23 witnesses from the CIA during Sterling's trial in January this year, negative comments about his actual job performance at the CIA were rare during their testimony. An exception was David Cohen, who headed the CIA's New York office when Sterling worked there. Cohen -- a notably hostile witness who called Sterling's job performance "extremely sub-par" -- booted Sterling from the New York office in 2000.
Shortly after 9/11, Cohen left the CIA to head up a New York Police Department program that drew strong criticism and opposition from civil liberties groups. In 2002, as my colleague Marcy Wheeler wrote, Cohen "got a federal court to relax the Handschu guidelines, which had been set up in 1985 in response to NYPD's targeting of people for their political speech. " After getting the rules relaxed, Cohen created teams of informants that infiltrated mosques and had officers catalog Muslim-owned restaurants, shops, and even schools."
The CIA fired Sterling in January 2002 after many months of administrative limbo. His letters the following year reflected escalating disappointment and anger at an absence of interest from members of Congress as well as from civil rights organizations including the Rainbow Push Coalition and the NAACP. Sterling says that none answered his letters.
"It has ... become apparent there is a general fear of taking on the CIA," said a June 26, 2003 letter from Sterling to the then-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland). "As a result, I have been engaged in a solitary and completely one-sided battle against the Agency that has left me ruined. There has been no one to stand with me either out of fear or ignorance. At every turn, the Agency has attempted to denigrate me and get rid of my case." (Sterling's lawsuit was to continue along a convoluted judicial path for over two more years, until a court finally dismissed it on grounds that a trial would reveal state secrets.)
Sterling says he never got a reply from Rep. Cummings. "Congressman Cummings does not recall receiving such a letter," his press secretary Trudy Perkins told me this week.
Sterling's letter to Cummings came two months after the White House had succeeded at persuading the Times management not to publish Risen's story on Operation Merlin. Meanwhile, the government was searching for someone to blame for the leak.