ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) – With prosecutors no longer trying to make New York Times reporter James Risen testify about his sources, defense counsel for former CIA agent Jeffrey Alexander Sterling opened the leak trial Tuesday by blasting the lack of evidence.
The trial’s start comes four years after prosecutors labeled Sterling as the source of confidential CIA information published in Risen’s 2006 book, “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.”
Prosecutors say only Sterling could have provided the specifics that appeared in Chapter 9 of “State of War,” about a CIA plan called Operation Merlin to sell faulty nuclear weapons blueprints to Iran.
After a six-year subpoena fight that ended with Risen giving limited pretrial testimony last week, prosecutors revealed on the eve of trial that the journalist would not be called to testify.
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Trump introduced the case to the jury of 14 by saying that Sterling betrayed his country, colleagues, the CIA and his human asset, a Russian scientist he’d sworn to protect, when he disclosed CIA secrets to Risen.
He did it out of “anger, bitterness and selfishness,” in retaliation for the CIA denying his $200,000 racial discrimination suit against the agency, the prosecutor added.
Trump described Sterling’s work from 1998 to 2000 as the case officer for an asset nicknamed Merlin, a Russian scientist who worked at a nuclear facility in his home country before immigrating to the U.S.
In an effort to thwart Iran’s nuclear program, the CIA wanted Merlin to try to sell that country nuclear weapons blueprints with embedded flaws, Trump said.
Sterling and Merlin both worked on the operation without expressing any doubts as to its value, Trump told the jury.
“[Sterling] never expressed any concerns that this was a bad operation, this was a flawed operation, in any way,” Trump said.
It was not until 2003, years after Sterling was taken off the Merlin case, and after his unsuccessful lawsuit against the CIA, that he told some congressional staff members that his former operation had been botched through poor management, the government claims.
The CIA received a call from James Risen regarding his story about the botched Operation Merlin shortly afterward, Trump said.
Emphasizing that Sterling and Risen were the only two people who ever suggested that Operation Merlin was flawed, Trump told the jury that Chapter 9’s allegations track closely with things that Sterling said to other people.
Sterling’s timeline with the operation also allegedly aligns with the dates that Risen used.
“The only person who knew the details of what was in that book … is Jeffrey Sterling,” Trump said.
Defense attorney Edward McMahon challenged the evidence as circumstantial, saying the government has gone after Sterling in retaliation for looking bad in “State of War.”
“What you have is a suspicion that it was Mr. Sterling, backed up by anger and the fact that the CIA despises Mr. Sterling now,” McMahon said.
The government’s case tries to rebut the damage done by “State of War,” and call into question the accuracy of the information published in the book, but prosecuting Sterling is not the way to make the agency look good, McMahon told the jury.
“A criminal case is not where the CIA goes to get its reputation back,” McMahon said.
Assuring the jury that other outlets could have produced the information in Chapter 9, McMahon quoted Risen as saying that his facts came from a variety of sources.
The defense plans to show the jury all the other ways Risen could have gotten information about Merlin.
Since the burden of proof is on the government, the defense need only cast doubt, not prove that it happened another way.
After opening statements, the court gave way to the government’s push for secrecy and erected a 7-foot gray screen in front of the audience to shield from the public’s view a procession to the witness stand of current and former CIA agents.
Each was identified by their first names and last initials. Three CIA case officers who preceded Sterling as Merlin’s handlers shared testimony as to their relationships with Merlin, the closely held nature of the asset and Operation Merlin, and Merlin’s value as an asset.
Merlin initially wanted nothing to do with the U.S. intelligence community, but an agent identified as Steven B. testified that he persuaded Merlin by focusing on the financial benefits, going so far as to present Merlin with a suitcase full of $50,000 in cash.
Once he became a CIA asset, Merlin was invaluable, testified Laurie D., a handler of Merlin’s from the 1990s who still works for the CIA.
“In my entire career, this is probably the most important [asset] I ever worked on,” Laurie D. said.
Zach W. was Merlin’s case officer directly before Sterling, and transitioned Operation Merlin into Sterling’s hands. This agent spoke at length in his testimony about Merlin’s positive attitude toward the operation he was involved in, denying the allegations made in Chapter 9 that Merlin told the CIA the faulty weapons blueprints were a poor plan.
Merlin took the operation very seriously and had a comfortable dialogue with the agents about how to make the plan better as it developed, Zach W. testified.
“This was not an issue of conflict,” Zach W. said. “This was a genuine conversation on how to move this forward.”
During jury selection, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema revealed to the potential jurors that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is on the potential witness list and may be called to testify during the trial.
The 14-person panel of jurors and alternates includes seven women and seven men, only two of whom are non-white. The trial is expected to last into the last week in January, but will not go past the end of the month, Brinkema told the jurors. Court will be back in session at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.
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