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CIA Whistleblower’s Wife|Asks Obama for Pardon

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."


"Never in the history of this nation has there been a black person who had the courage to fight racial discrimination against the CIA," West said. "Never in the history of this nation has there been a black man in the White House that would allow him to go to jail unjustly. Two black men-one in power, one dealing with the arbitrary uses of power of that black president. Shame on ya, President Obama," West said.

The impact of Sterling's conviction on press freedom has been chilling and was intended to be so, Kiriakou said.

"The point was to demonize him in the press. And the point was to frighten any other would-be whistleblowers. You see what we did to Jeffrey Sterling? The same thing's gonna happen to you," he said.

"If you do go through the proper channels, it's the kiss of death. You're going to be charged with espionage," Kiriakou added.

The price paid is a heavy one, Sterling's wife and Kiriakou noted.

Holly Sterling described her husband as "the love of her life," and a "wonderful, good, kind, intelligent man."

"I miss him dearly. Every day," she said in an interview. "He's my best friend, my husband, and he is unfortunately living in an unfathomable world. One that we can't even imagine, honestly, how he got there. I'm still in shock everyday that my husband is actually in prison."

"The challenging part for me is that, I can't take any of this away from him. And that, he's in prison and that's never going to be erased from his memory," Sterling's wife added. "I can't just make it go away."

Kiriakou says he knows well what Sterling might be going through as he serves his sentence.

"Poor Jeffrey," he said in an interview. "What gets you down the most, and from the very beginning, is the profound depression. To the point where you think about doing crazy things to yourself."

"Depression eventually turns to anger. You're angry at everything. You're angry at yourself, you're angry at the judge and the jurors and the prosecutors," Kiriakou added. "The anger fades into hope as your sentence draws to a close, but that is short-lived. I was hopeful and I was very happy. Until I got home. Then you realize that you're essentially unemployable."

Before finding an associate fellow position with the Institute for Policy Studies, Kiriakou said he was offered a dishwasher position at a Fuddruckers restaurant, noting that he could not just step right back into his life.

Sterling is "very worried about what he's going to do when he gets out," Kiriakou said. "A pardon would wipe the slate clean. It would really give him his life back."

More than 150,000 people signed the petition urging Obama to pardon Jeffrey, but there is other work to be done, according to Timothy Karr of Free Press, a progressive advocacy group.

"A lot of the legislation that's being used today to go after whistleblowers, to go after dissenting voices, is outdated and misinterpreted and used in a way that imperils some of our most important principles like freedom of speech and freedom of the press," Karr said in an interview.

"If there is enough outrage around these types of abuses, then it's possible that advocacy organizations working together - working with journalists, working with whistleblowers - can build enough political will power to change things," he added.

Reporters Without Borders is pushing for a strong federal shield law that would allow journalists to protect their sources, Halgand said.

"There's not a lot of interest in Congress to pass such a strong law but we need to keep pushing for that. Journalists in the U.S., media in the U.S., should keep pushing for that because it's their own rights to have access to information, which is at stake," she said in an interview.

West agreed, and said the issue has "been swept under the rug" on the presidential campaign trail.

"I'm very much in support of brother Bernie Sanders, but we've gotta keep pressure on all the candidates, that they're committed to rights and liberties and not for the expansion of the national surveillance state and the national security state," he said in an interview.

"We need to raise the issue in public over and over again," West added, noting that he believes Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is more receptive on this issue than "hawkish" Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State and democratic front-runner.

For Kiriakou, the election stakes are high.

"Never in my life have I seen so many presidential candidates promising the American people that on their first day as president, they're going to commit an impeachable act - that they're going to commit a war crime or a crime against humanity. Because that's really what the torture program is," he said of the promises of several Republican presidential candidates, including Donald Trump, to revive the torture program.

"It's up to us to make sure that our elected officials understand that we will not tolerate another torture program. It's illegal, it's immoral, it's unethical and frankly, it serves as the greatest recruiting tool for our enemies," Kiriakou said.

Underscoring the importance of whistleblowers, Kiriakou said that declassification of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture would be "critical" for public debate during a presidential election year.

"I hope, frankly, that somebody leaks it," he said. "Because I think it would be a national public service. I think that Americans have a right to know what the government has done in their name, and then tried to cover for it, and I think that that's exactly what we ought to be debating."

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