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Jeffrey Sterling, Former CIA Officer, Is Convicted Of Espionage

A former CIA officer who was accused of giving a journalist classified information about U.S. plans to spoil Iran's nuclear program has been convicted of espionage in federal court.

Jeffrey Sterling, 47, was officially fired from the CIA in 2002; he was indicted for espionage in 2011 and now faces the possibility of dozens of years in prison. He'll be sentenced in April.

As NPR's Carrie Johnson has noted, "President Obama has pursued more of these criminal leak indictments than any of his predecessors."

Update at 5:35 p.m. ET: 'Sad Day,' Attorney Says

Sterling's lawyer, Barry Pollack, says, "It is a sad day for Mr. Sterling and his wife. We will be filing motions to set aside the verdict and file an appeal."

Our original post continues:

Sterling's case has drawn wide attention — and been drawn out by legal arguments — in part because he was accused of giving secret information to James Risen of The New York Times, who later included details about the CIA's Iran operation in a book. In the fight to compel him to identify his source, Risen resisted efforts that included a federal subpoena.

Monday, The New York Times reports:

"The case revolved around a C.I.A. operation in which a former Russian scientist provided Iran with intentionally flawed nuclear component schematics. Mr. Risen revealed the operation in his 2006 book "State of War," describing it as a mismanaged, potentially reckless mission that may have inadvertently aided the Iranian nuclear program."

The Obama administration has said Sterling leaked information for several reasons, from his claims of racial discrimination to his anger at being fired by the agency and the CIA's demands for revisions to his memoir.

In the end, prosecutors did not call on Risen to testify at the trial, even though he had lost his appeals case over the subpoena (and the Supreme Court decided not to intervene). Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed that Risen would not be compelled to name his source.

Instead, the government turned to other evidence to tie Risen to Sterling.

Court documents show that prosecutors have cited a March 2002 article by Risen about the former case officer and his claims the CIA practiced racial bias. The government took particular exception to two portions of the report: one that suggested Risen had seen a CIA performance evaluation, and another that said "Sterling 'relished his secret assignment to recruit Iranians as spies.' "

The government also cited telephone and email records that showed contact between the two.

After Sterling left the agency, the disagreement over his planned memoir — which had the working title Spook, according to an email from the acting chairman of the CIA's Publications Review Board — opened another contentious front.

A court record states that in January 2003, Sterling "contacted the Board and expressed 'extreme unhappiness' over the Board's edits to his memoirs, and stated that 'he would be coming at ... the CIA with everything at his disposal.' "

Risen, in his book, wrote about the CIA's work against Iran's nuclear aims in a chapter called "A Rogue Operation." He called the program "Operation Merlin."

The Times describes Sterling's trial like this:

"The trial was part Washington spectacle, part cloak and dagger. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testified, as did C.I.A. operatives who gave only their first names and last initials, with their faces shielded behind seven-foot-high partitions. A scientist was referred to only by his code name, Merlin. His wife was Mrs. Merlin."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.