WASHINGTON (CN) - The wife of jailed CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling called on President Barack Obama to pardon her husband Wednesday, delivering a petition for his freedom to the White House.
Sterling, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, has served eight months of a 42-month sentence after being convicted of nine felony counts - including espionage - for leaking classified information to New York Times reporter James Risen.
His wife of 10 years, Holly Sterling, declared her husband's innocence during a Wednesday morning press conference before the petition's release.
"He's in prison, and he doesn't belong there," she said.
Sterling and his wife maintain that he followed appropriate internal channels to raise his concerns about a secret CIA operation he was assigned to, designed to undermine Iran's nuclear program. In March 2003, he took his concerns about Operation Merlin to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Sterling's wife reiterated that, "Jeffrey did not disclose classified information to Risen."
Risen published a book entitled "State of War" in 2006, in which he discussed Operation Merlin, which he claims may have actually accelerated Iran's nuclear program rather than crippled it.
While Risen successfully fought off government efforts to force him to hand over the identities of his confidential sources, Sterling got an unfair trial in a pro-government court with a CIA-friendly jury, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Delphine Halgand, U.S. director of Reporters Without Borders, said that the jury convicted Sterling - the only person investigated as a source for Risen's book - on circumstantial evidence based entirely on metadata showing that Sterling and Risen had been in contact.
"No content directly proved that Jeffrey Sterling was the source," she said.
The content of the emails and phone conversations between them remains unknown, Halgand said.
"How is it possible that proving the mere existence of contact between the former CIA operative and a reporter is sufficient to convict someone of espionage?" she asked.
Dubbing the Eastern Virginia Federal Court "the espionage court," John Kiriakou, the former CIA analyst who blew the whistle on the U.S. torture program, says the U.S. Justice Department tried Sterling there because no national security defendant ever wins in that court.
"Juries in the Eastern District would convict a bologna sandwich if the government asked them to," he said.
After accepting a plea bargain, Kiriakou served 23 months for revealing the name of a covert CIA operative to a reporter, who never published the information. Like Sterling, Kiriakou believes he was targeted by the agency - in his case, for exposing the CIA's use of waterboarding during interrogations.
Sterling believes the CIA targeted him for several federal lawsuits he filed, alleging racial discrimination within the agency. In fact, Sterling and Risen had been in contact in 2002, when Risen wrote a story about the agency's alleged discrimination.
Dr. Cornel West called Sterling's case "historic."