Jeffrey A. Sterling, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, was convicted of espionage Monday on charges that he told a reporter for The New York Times about a secret operation to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program.
The conviction is a significant victory for the Obama administration, which has conducted an unprecedented crackdown on officials who speak to journalists about security matters without the administration’s approval. Prosecutors prevailed after a yearslong fight in which the reporter, James Risen, refused to identify his sources.
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.
On the third day of deliberations, the jury in federal court in Alexandria, Va., convicted Mr. Sterling on nine felony counts. Mr. Sterling, who worked for the C.I.A. from 1993 to 2002 and now lives in O’Fallon, Mo., faces a maximum possible sentence of decades in prison, though the actual sentence is likely to be far shorter. Judge Leonie M. Brinkema of Federal District Court, who presided over the weeklong trial, allowed Mr. Sterling to remain free on bond and set sentencing for April 24.
“This is a just and appropriate outcome,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said. “The defendant’s unauthorized disclosures of classified information compromised operations undertaken in defense of America’s national security. The disclosures placed lives at risk. And they constituted an egregious breach of the public trust by someone who had sworn to uphold it. As this verdict proves, it is possible to fully prosecute unauthorized disclosures that inflict harm upon our national security without interfering with journalists’ ability to do their jobs.”
Edward B. MacMahon Jr., Mr. Sterling’s lawyer, said he would seek to get the verdict thrown out and, failing that, file an appeal.
“We’re obviously very saddened by the jury’s verdict,” Mr. MacMahon said in a telephone interview. “We continue to believe in Jeffrey’s innocence, and we’re going to continue to fight for him up to the highest levels.”
Was he even guilty?
Mr. Sterling’s lawyers argued that it was just as likely that Mr. Risen had learned about the operation from Capitol Hill staff members, then pieced together details from other sources at the C.I.A. and from the Russian scientist himself. Mr. Pollack acknowledged that Mr. Sterling had a relationship with Mr. Risen, but said they had talked only about Mr. Sterling’s discrimination lawsuit against the C.I.A. Mr. Risen probably asked about Merlin and the Iranian operation, Mr. Pollack said, but Mr. Sterling did not provide any information.
Mr. Sterling is the latest in a string of former officials and contractors the Obama administration has charged with discussing national security matters with reporters. Under all previous presidents combined, three people had faced such prosecutions. Under President Obama, there have been eight cases, and journalists have complained that the crackdown has discouraged officials from discussing even unclassified security matters.
So there are leaks and then “approved leaks”
Mr. Risen’s lengthy fight to avoid testifying about his sources turned the case into a rallying point for news organizations, who said the Justice Department had made it harder to cover national security beyond what it released in news statements and approved leaks, such as those that told a glowing story about the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. Less favorable stories, such as those revealing warrantless wiretapping or secret prisons, led to criminal investigations.
So the Whitehouse is fine with favourable leaks but those that reflect poorly on the President and the U.S. government are prosecuted. Tell me again why we had such high hopes in Barack Obama?