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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
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Feds Assail Suspected CIA Leaker’s Record

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) - An ex-CIA agent accused of divulging classified information was a sub-par employee, according to testimony given by the head of his field office.

The government mounted its attack against Jeffrey Sterling's character and professionalism at trial Friday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. Sterling left the agency's employment in 2002 feeling mistreated, and prosecutors allege that his bitterness toward the CIA for perceived discrimination led him to leak classified documents to a journalist.

Sterling was not succeeding in his assignment at the CIA's New York field office in 2000, David Cohen - then-director of the New York office - testified. Cohen requested that Sterling be removed from his assignment as case officer for human asset "Merlin," a Russian scientist at the heart of an operation to thwart the Iranian nuclear program.

That operation, referred to at trial as Classified Program No. 1, was exposed and criticized as a failure in the 2006 book "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration," written by journalist James Risen.

CIA witnesses and former national security advisor Condoleezza Rice have testified during the trial that the program was both successful and a CIA priority. The program was too important to be assigned to Sterling, according to Cohen.

"[Sterling] was not performing consistent with the expectations of a person of his background and his grade," Cohen testified.

But Cohen's second-in-command, Charles Seidel, had nothing negative to say about Sterling's performance while working on Classified Program No. 1.

"I don't recall hearing any criticism of his handling of that operation," Seidel testified.

Merlin, in three hours of video-taped testimony played for the jury, called Sterling lazy and irresponsible, and the worst person he dealt with during his time as a CIA asset.

"The other people were much friendlier and much smarter than Mr. Sterling," said Merlin, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2007 and said he was too ill to travel to Virginia for the trial.

After Sterling was pulled from Classified Program No. 1 and transferred to CIA headquarters in a plan to improve his performance, he lodged a discrimination complaint against the agency. Eileen Swicker, chief of staff to the deputy director of operations, worked with Sterling throughout his complaint process, and she testified that he was unhappy when his $200,000 settlement request was "rejected out of hand."

"He told me that he intended to pursue his claim as long and as loud as possible, and inside and outside of the agency," Swicker said.

The Equal Employment Opportunity complaint was not the only litigation Sterling filed against the agency. In 2002, Sterling submitted to the CIA's Publication Review Board a book review and later a complete draft of a book he wanted to have published.

The PRB balances the author's right to free speech and the agency's need to protect classified information, according to Scott Koch, the PRB chair when Sterling submitted his initial book review.

After Sterling submitted the complete draft of his book, it took the PRB significantly longer than the typical 30 days to return the manuscript with redactions. As the delays continued, Sterling became frustrated and called the board's actions "absolutely reprehensible," testified Charles Bruce Wells, acting chair of the PRB while the board reviewed the complete manuscript.

In January 2003, after his review process took four months, Wells wrote in an internal email that Sterling said he would "come at us with everything at his disposal." Sterling later filed a suit against the board.

Carrie Lyons, a co-worker and friend of Sterling when he was working at CIA headquarters before his termination, was the first witness to share any evidence that Sterling might have leaked classified information. He told her that after Sept. 11, 2001, he confirmed the destruction of the CIA's New York field office to a newspaper, she said.

He seemed to be boasting about it, Lyons testified, and she was "taken aback." However, as she confirmed under cross examination, Lyons said that she did not know what newspaper or reporter Sterling was talking about, if he was serious or if the information had already been leaked to the press by another source.

Risen's account of Classified Program No. 1, which he called "Operation Merlin" in his book, told of a botched program that delivered into Iranian hands very helpful information for building a nuclear weapon. Government witnesses have thus far vehemently contradicted that idea, and Merlin was no exception during his testimony. He even went as far as to suggest Classified Program No. 1 was the reason Iran still does not have any nuclear weapons.

"It was not a rogue operation at all," Merlin said. "It was a really brilliant operation."

Merlin delivered intentionally flawed blueprints for a firing set, the component that ignites a nuclear weapon, to the Iranian mission for the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna at the culmination of Classified Program No. 1 in 2000. Though the Iranians never followed up with him as was the hope of the operation, Merlin said the mission was accomplished.

As Merlin testified about his trip to Vienna and his interactions with Sterling and other CIA agents, his testimony differed noticeably from earlier testimony by Bob S., the operations director for Classified Program No. 1.

Merlin said that Bob S. did tell Sterling to "shut up" in an incident that Bob S. described differently, and Merlin denied that he had ever said anything to Bob S. indicating that he had negative feelings toward black people.

"You're kidding me," Merlin said in his deposition. "I don't care."

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