Who Wants To Be a Whistleblower? If No-one Does, We’re In Trouble

There is a species currently threatened with extinction. Climate change is not to blame. Nor is Darwin’s theory of evolution, or some chance discovery made by Sir David Attenborough in the Galapagos. I’m talking about whistleblowers. These are people, who, at grave risk to themselves, reveal information that the public has a right to know about. But at this moment in time they have a bullseye on their back. They’ve been turned into targets of opportunity, as governments around the world, try to control all of the exit routes on the information superhighway. Before he became the US President, Barrack Obama, said he valued whistleblowers. He promised to protect them. But, sadly, what he said was not what he meant. They turned out to be weasel words. Promises, worthless and empty, as you might expect from politicians and the morally bankrupt. Instead, Obama declared war on whistleblowers. And a man called Jeffrey Sterling is one of the casualties. He is a former member of the CIA, who was involved in a top-secret operation to provide Iran with bogus plans to sabotage its nuclear program. His career story reads like a James Bond novel.

Sterling joined the CIA in May, 1993. Two years later, he became operations officer in the Iran task force of the CIA’s Near East and South Asia division. He held a top-secret security clearance and had access to sensitive information, including classified cables, CIA informants, and operations. After training in the Persian language in 1997, he was firstly sent to Bonn, Germany, and two years later to New York City to recruit Iranian nationals as agents for the CIA and also as part of a secret intelligence operation, codenamed Merlin, which literally gave intentionally flawed nuclear designs to Iran, in 2000.

Here’s how it worked. From early 1998 to May 2000, Sterling had assumed responsibility as case officer for a Russian with an engineering background in nuclear physics and production, which the CIA employed as a mule to pass flawed design plans to the Iranians. In April 2000, Sterling had a significant falling out with his employers. He filed a complaint with the CIA’s Equal Employment Office alleging racial discrimination. The CIA subsequently revoked Sterling’s authorization to receive or possess classified documents and placed him on administrative leave in March 2001. Sterling’s lawsuit, alleging he was the victim of racial discrimination, was dismissed by a Federal judge after the government successfully argued that pursuing the case would involve the disclosure of classified information. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal, ruling in 2005 that “there is no way for Sterling to prove employment discrimination without exposing at least some classified details of the covert employment that gives context to his claim.” Sterling was one of only a handful of African-American case officers employed by the CIA. He was ultimately fired from his job early in the Bush administration. The prosecution alleged that Sterling tried to blow the whistle on Operation Merlin by trying to give evidence to the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2003 and when that didn’t work he decided to leak classified information to New York Times reporter and author James Risen for his 2006 book, “State of War.” Sterling then faced charges under the Espionage Act. The Justice Department portrayed Sterling as an “angry” and “vengeful” man who was “disgruntled” rather than righteously upset with corruption and cover-ups. Prosecutors alleged — and the jury agreed — that Sterling was trying to get his revenge on the CIA when he talked to Risen about a CIA operation that was meant to deter Iran’s nuclear program. The case drew special attention when federal prosecutors initially sought to subpoena Risen to testify against his will. Though they won in court, the Justice Department ultimately decided not to force the reporter to take the stand and give evidence at the trial. Risen had vowed to go to jail before he would reveal any sources. Federal Attorney-General Holder said that the verdict proved “it is possible to fully prosecute unauthorized disclosures that inflict harm upon our national security without interfering with journalists’ ability to do their jobs.” Since his department’s legal battles with Risen, Holder has tightened the guidelines governing investigations that involve journalists. The trial itself was a spectacle, with CIA officers testifying behind a retractable grey screen as they described suitcases full of cash, clandestine meetings and fictitious back stories. The case against Sterling was largely circumstantial — there were no recorded phone conversations or captured e-mail exchanges that show he passed leaked classified information to Risen — and that omission required prosecutors’ to delve deeply into Sterling’s work and the details of Risen’s book. According to the prosecutor, Sterling was the only potential source who had a relationship with Risen, knew of the information and had a motive to discuss his clandestine work. They argued that the book — which suggested that the secret operation might actually have helped further Iran’s nuclear research — was somewhat inaccurate and that it cast Sterling as a hero and the CIA as hapless fools. “Jeffrey Sterling’s spin is what appears in the book,” prosecutor Eric Olshan said. Sterling’s defense attorneys argued that several people, other than Sterling, could have served as Risen’s source, and they suggested Sterling was unlikely to have given the reporter any information. In any case, they argued some information in the book could not have come from Sterling, because it addressed matters that happened after he left the CIA or contained details that he would not have known or remembered. Sterling became only the fifth person in the history of the United States under the Espionage Act, to be charged with mishandling national defense information. In a hearing at the U.S. District Court in 2011, Sterling’s defense attorney, Edward MacMahon, entered a not guilty plea. But Sterling was convicted of espionage on January 26, 2015. His defense attorney Barry Pollack said after the hearing that Sterling’s lawyers plan to take the case to a higher court “This is a sad day for Mr. Sterling and his wife,” Pollack said. “We will pursue all legal avenues with the trial court and on appeal to challenge Mr. Sterling’s conviction.”

What is significant here is that the Sterling case is not the first of its kind against whistleblowers. Other people who have tried to speak out  include former National Security Agency manager Thomas A. Drake, and former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who was sentenced to 2½ years in prison for disclosing a covert operative’s name to a reporter. Federal authorities are still considering whether to lay charges against several high-profile individuals in other investigations, including former CIA director David H. Petraeus, veteran State Department diplomat Robin Raphel and retired Marine Gen. James E. “Hoss” Cartwright. Dan French, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of New York who now does corporate work for a prominent law firm, said irrespective of whether prosecutors won or lost the Sterling case, they would in future aggressively prosecute whistleblowers. “I just think they’re going to bring these cases continuously to demonstrate that type of conduct by a government employee or a government contractor is going to be prosecuted, because the risk is just too grave,” he said.

Very bad news for anyone who believes in upholding free speech, and keeping our Governments accountable.

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