ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) - The fate of a former CIA agent accused of leaking details of a classified operation to a journalist will be in the hands of a jury by Thursday's end.
It has been 12 years since the CIA first learned that someone had compromised its sensitive mission to deliver intentionally flawed nuclear fire-set plans to Iran, but the trial against former CIA agent Jeffrey Alexander Sterling is winding down after just over a week of testimony from clandestine agents and forensic experts.
By the time New York Times reporter James Risen approached the agency with questions about so-called Operation Merlin in 2003, Sterling had been off the job for a year, fired amid his lawsuit for alleged racial discrimination.
Though Condoleezza Rice, then national security advisor, stepped in to quash Risen's story, the reporter devoted a chapter to Operation Merlin, also known as Classified Program No. 1, in his 2006 book "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration."
Phone records and email data show that Sterling had plenty of contact with Risen, the FBI agent in charge of the case testified Wednesday, while defense attorneys hammered home that such records offer no proof of what the two discussed.
Risen repeatedly refused the government's attempts to have him reveal his unnamed sources for "State of War," and prosecutors ultimately decided to proceed to trial without the reporter's testimony. As the government wrapped up its case in Alexandria federal court Wednesday, it relied on FBI Special Agent Ashley Hunt to convince the jury once and for all that Sterling was the source of Risen's information.
Hunt collected Sterling's email data three times in the course of her investigation - April, July and October of 2006. There wasn't much difference in volume between the three data collections, Hunt testified, but one email that appeared in the initial search disappeared before the second and third searches.
An email sent from one of Sterling's email addresses to Risen's New York Times email on March 10, 2003, provided a link to a CNN news story about the advancement of Iran's nuclear program.
"I'm sure you've already seen this, but quite interesting, don't you think? All the more reason to wonder. -J"
Operation Merlin sought to undermine Iran's nuclear program by covertly providing it with faulty designs, but Risen learned from his unnamed sources that the mission was a failure because the flaws in the Merlin design were so obvious that Iranian engineers could fix them easily to wind up with a functioning weapon. Sterling had once been a case officer to the Russian scientist whom the CIA assigned to sell the faulty blueprints.
The former agent received a subpoena on June 16, 2006, to testify before a grand jury and provide any documents in his possession that could help the FBI in its investigation of the Operation Merlin leak. When Sterling's email data was again collected in July, Hunt said the email referencing the Iranian nuclear program had disappeared. Sterling's indictment includes an obstruction of justice charge for the deletion of that email.
But defense attorney Edward McMahon pointed out that the subpoena Hunt served to Sterling did not include any reference to communication between him and Risen, so there was no reason for Sterling to believe he needed to keep those emails.
"When drafting this, no one thought to put, 'Preserve any communications with James Risen?'" McMahon said.