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Feds Emphasize Ex-CIA Agent’s Motive|as Jeffrey Sterling Leak Trial Goes to Jury

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) - A book that divulged top-secret CIA mission details and threatened national security could not have been written without information provided by disgruntled former agent Jeffrey Sterling, federal prosecutors argued in closing statements Thursday.

Sterling was the only person, the government says, who had knowledge of the exposed mission, motive to damage the CIA's reputation, and an existing relationship with James Risen, the journalist who published the classified information.

"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 told the jury as he made his final presentation of the case.

Sterling is accused of illegally retaining classified documents about Classified Program No. 1, or "Operation Merlin," when he ceased being the case officer attached to the program in 2000. Three years later, in the midst of a failing discrimination suit against the CIA, the government alleges that Sterling turned over those documents to Risen and helped him write a story about its objective of giving intentionally flawed nuclear fire set plans to Iran.

The mission's goal was to sidetrack the Iranian nuclear program, but Risen's description in his book, "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration," suggested the CIA may have provided information that actually helped Iran develop working nuclear weapons.

Sterling was the case officer on Operation Merlin for two years, working with CIA asset codenamed Merlin, a Russian scientist who was responsible for getting the flawed fire set plans to the Iranians. Sterling worked on the mission from the time Merlin was given the plans to the time he delivered them at a drop in Vienna - a timeframe that perfectly aligns with the information in Risen's book, even though the operation itself lasted much longer than that.

Clusters of emails and phone calls between Sterling and Risen matched up chronologically to developments in Sterling's Equal Employment Opportunity lawsuit against the CIA, the government told the jury.

It noted that, shortly after the agency rejected a settlement offer in early 2003, Sterling went to staff members with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), and began reporting concerns about Operation Merlin.

A month later, Risen called the CIA and told them he had information about a mission to thwart the Iranian nuclear program.

Such timing, to the government, is no coincidence, saying Sterling was angry at the CIA and chose to retaliate against his perceived mistreatment by spilling secrets.

"The defendant was angry, he was bitter, and he wanted to lash out," Olshan said. "There's your motive."

Defense attorney Barry Pollack said the timing in fact proved that Sterling never spoke to Risen about Operation Merlin. Sterling's relationship with Risen was established when Risen wrote a 2002 story about Sterling's discrimination case against the CIA. Of course Sterling and Risen spoke after each settlement offer was rejected, Pollack said, because Sterling wanted more publicity for his lawsuit.

Pollack told the jury that it was obvious a staffer at SSCI leaked the story to Risen after Sterling presented his concerns to the committee in March 2003. Risen's book includes the information that SSCI did not follow up on Sterling's complaint, but Sterling never knew what happened after his meeting with the SSCI staffers, the attorney noted.

Former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who got the New York Times to quash Risen's first attempt at publishing his Operation Merlin story in 2003, testified that one tool the government uses to prevent an article's publication is showing that at least some of the story is incorrect.

Indeed, a focus of the government's case has been that Operation Merlin was a success until Risen's book exposed it.

But Pollack said the CIA unintentionally gave Risen more information about Operation Merlin in its rush to debunk him. He said Risen, as an experienced journalist in D.C., was able to pool information he learned from SSCI staffers, the CIA, and even Sterling's declassified performance reviews that Sterling gave Risen for his discrimination suit story.

Risen almost certainly asked Sterling about Operation Merlin once he'd heard the information from SSCI, Pollack said, but that doesn't mean Sterling discussed the issue with him. Sterling spoke to Risen only about his discrimination case against the CIA, Pollack said.

"Their relationship ends when the employment discrimination suit ends," Pollack told the jury.

Sterling's discrimination suit capsized around the time when Risen's book came out in January 2006. The government argued that, rather than discussing the discrimination suit in their 47 phone calls between 2003 and 2005, Sterling and Risen were actually conferring on the book and no longer needed to speak once the book was sent to its publisher.

"The job was done, ladies and gentlemen," Olshan said. "The book had come out. The story was published."

Prosecutors need prove only that Sterling was one of Risen's sources for "State of War," and Olshan told the jury to keep that in mind while they deliberated.

"State of War" included quotes from Sterling's performance review and a letter that Merlin said only he and Sterling were given.

The jury heard that investigators found classified documents in Sterling's home, but none pertained to Operation Merlin. The deletion of an email referencing the Iranian nuclear program also coincided with Sterling's learning of the leak investigation. Prosecutors say Sterling knew the details of Operation Merlin, and he knew James Risen.

Pollack said all this amounts to a suspicion that Sterling was one of Risen's sources. But Risen could have obtained the information in question from a number of sources.

"They have a theory, I have a theory," Pollack said. "I think my theory is the more likely theory."

Prosecutor Jim Trump conceded in his final rebuttal that the government's evidence against Sterling is circumstantial, but he told the jury not to overlook the obvious.

"Circumstantial evidence can be compelling, it can be powerful, it can convict," Trump said.

The jury began deliberating the case about 3:30 p.m. Thursday, and it will resume deliberations Friday morning.

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