Former covert CIA agent charged with leaking secrets to newspaper

The indictment of former CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling says he gave secrets to a reporter after becoming angry about the agency's unwillingness to send him on undercover assignments abroad.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
The logo appears on the lobby floor of the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Va.

A former covert CIA officer has been charged in a 10-count indictment unsealed on Thursday for allegedly leaking classified information to a newspaper reporter.

Jeffrey Alexander Sterling of O’Fallon, Mo., is accused of six counts of unauthorized disclosure of national defense information. He is also charged with unlawful retention of national defense information, unauthorized conveyance of government property, mail fraud, and obstruction of justice.

If convicted, he faces up to 120 years in prison and $2.5 million in fines.

The case arises as the Obama administration continues to struggle to counteract the seeming unending disclosure of classified and embarrassing US documents through the WikiLeaks website. There is no indication that Mr. Sterling’s case is connected to WikiLeaks.

But Sterling’s public prosecution in federal court is highly ironic. A few years ago, government lawyers invoked the state secrets privilege to urge immediate dismissal of a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by Sterling against the CIA. Then-CIA Director George Tenent argued that the litigation would inevitably lead to disclosure of highly sensitive government information.

Sterling, who is black, said he was denied certain undercover assignments at the agency because, officials allegedly told him, he was “too big and black” to function effectively as a covert intelligence officer overseas.

A federal judge granted the government’s request and immediately dismissed Sterling’s civil rights case under the state secrets doctrine. The Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

“We recognize that our decision places … a burden on Sterling that he alone must bear,” the Fourth Circuit said in an August 2005 decision. But the court concluded: “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’s prosecution will likely involve disclosure of some of the same highly sensitive information that prompted the government’s earlier invocation of the state secrets privilege.

Sterling worked at the CIA from 1993 to 2002, much of that time as a member of an Iran task force. It was his job to recruit and run Farsi-speaking agents.

The indictment says Sterling was bitter about the CIA’s treatment of him and the agency’s refusal to settle his discrimination case. In retaliation, Sterling allegedly disclosed information and documents about his former secret work to a newspaper reporter.

The reporter was James Risen of The New York Times, according to an Associated Press report.

The indictment alleges that from 2003 to 2005 Sterling provided information for a possible newspaper article. Although the article was not written, some of the information allegedly provided by Sterling was published in a 2006 book written by the journalist.

Officials said the FBI began an investigation of possible leaks by Sterling, and that Sterling became aware of the investigation as early as 2003. He was also served a grand jury subpoena in June 2006.

Sterling was arrested on Thursday in Missouri. The indictment was returned by a federal grand jury sitting in the Eastern District of Virginia on Dec. 22. It was unsealed on Thursday.

“Our national security requires that sensitive information be protected,” said US Attorney Neil MacBride in a statement. “The law does not allow one person to unilaterally decide to disclose that information to someone not cleared to receive it.”

Mr. MacBride added: “Those who handle classified information know the law and must be held accountable when they break it.”

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