WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal appeals court on Thursday affirmed all but one conviction of a former CIA officer serving prison time for leaking government secrets to a newspaper reporter.
The Fourth Circuit panel concluded that Jeffrey Sterling’s convictions were based on a rational jury’s conclusion that he passed along at least some classified information about the CIA’s efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Sterling was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison after being convicted under the Espionage Act of divulging details of a secret CIA mission to James Risen of The New York Times.
The operation was described in Risen’s 2006 book “State of War.”
In that book Risen said a CIA agent was to deliver flawed nuclear blueprints to Iran in the hopes that they would spend years trying to develop a product that would never work.
Risen suggested the plan went awry and may have actually aided the Iranian’s nuclear ambitions — a characterization the CIA has rejected.
Prosecutors hinged their case for Sterling’s guilt on his thirst for revenge. Prosecutors painted Sterling as a disgruntled employee, coming to blows with the CIA after he was fired in for discrimination in the early 2000s. There was also friction, prosecutors told the court, when Sterling attempted to publish his own memoir.
Sterling meanwhile has always maintained he was not Risen’s anonymous source of this information.
The Department of Justice considered compelling Risen to testify during the trial and provide information about his sources, testing the durability of the First Amendment.
The court later determined that neither protections under free speech or other common laws offering protection to journalists who promise their sources anonymity could bar a reporter from having to testify about a source in a criminal trial.
Risen was never compelled to testify. The journalist vowed to serve time in jail before revealing a source.
The lone conviction overturned on Thursday involved a technicality. The three-judge panel said prosecutors did not prove that Sterling’s sharing of data occurred in the Eastern District of Virginia where the case was originally tried.
Sterling will be released from prison in June 2018. He still has the option of petitioning for an en banc review of his case.