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Monday, May 27, 2024 | Back issues
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Ex-CIA Agent Found Guilty in Leak Case

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) - Former CIA officer Jeffrey Alexander Sterling was found guilty on all nine counts of unlawful disclosure of classified information and related charges in federal court Monday.

As the court clerk read the guilty verdicts aloud, the only other sounds in the courtroom were the sobs of Sterling's wife.

Federal prosecutors charged Sterling with unlawful disclosure of classified information, retention and conveyance of classified documents, and obstruction of justice in relation to the exposure of a CIA mission to thwart the Iranian nuclear program.

Details of the mission were leaked to New York Times journalist James Risen, who published the information in his 2006 book "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration."

Sterling was the case officer from late 1998 to 2000 for an operation referred to as "Operation Merlin," a plan to have a Russian scientist serving as a CIA asset give intentionally flawed nuclear fire set plans to Iran. He was the only one who had the knowledge of the mission, motive to retaliate against the CIA and an existing relationship with Risen, prosecutors argued in a case that relied heavily on circumstantial evidence.

The information in "State of War" aligned closely to the time that Sterling worked on the mission, and the negative light cast on the mission reflected concerns Sterling expressed in 2003 to staff members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the government said.

Sterling was fired from the CIA in 2002, while he was in the midst of suing the agency for racial discrimination and harassment. After the CIA rejected several settlement offers, the suit was eventually dismissed in early 2006.

Risen wrote about Sterling's discrimination suit while it was still pending, proving for the government that Risen and Sterling knew each other. Phone records and email fragments showed that Sterling and Risen continued to have contact through 2005. Although there was no direct evidence that Sterling disclosed any classified information through those communications, it was enough for the government to argue Sterling had motive and opportunity to give Risen classified information about Operation Merlin.

"Jeffrey Sterling, a disgruntled employee with an ax to grind, disclosed the government's secrets to Risen, a reporter he knew well," prosecutor Eric Olshan said during closing arguments this past Thursday.

A parade of former and current CIA agents - most hidden by a gray screen and identified only by first names and last initial - testified throughout the trial as to the importance of Operation Merlin for national security. Former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said it was one of the only options the U.S. had to derail Iran's nuclear program.

Sterling's trial was delayed for years as the government attempted to compel Risen to testify. But after the reporter's repeated refusals, the government dropped its pursuit of his testimony.

Earlier Monday, it looked as though the jury would be unable to reach unanimous verdicts on all counts. Shortly before noon, the jury sent a note to Judge Leonie Brinkema informing her they could not reach an agreement on several counts, and asked for further instructions.

Brinkema encouraged the jury to take their lunch break and then to return to deliberations to "see if you can reach a unanimous decision without doing violence to your own individual judgment."

About two hours after the lunch break, the jury returned its unanimous guilty verdict on all counts.

Sterling will remain free on bond until his sentencing hearing on April 24. The defense already has several motions pending in the case, and it will have three weeks to file post-trial motions. The government will then have two weeks to respond.

Defense attorneys Barry Pollack and Edward McMahon declined to comment after the verdict was read. Prosecutors were not immediately available.

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