Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling leaves the Alexandria federal courthouse with his wife, Holly, after being convicted of leaking classified details of an operation to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions to a New York Times reporter. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
Locked away in federal prison, Jeffrey Sterling is struggling to keep his demons at bay. The former CIA officer whose case came to signify the Obama administration’s crackdown on leakers spends his days reading, tutoring fellow inmates and finishing a memoir, which he says he has to write by hand and mail home so his wife can type it.
“There is no sugarcoating it for me,” Sterling said. “I’m in prison.”
Sterling said he wants the public to know that he has “survived with my head held high.” But he concedes that he feels low on some days. He was a CIA officer, helping run an operation to sabotage Iranian plans to design a nuclear weapon. Now he’s Inmate No. 38338-044 in Englewood, Colo., taking classes on checking and saving accounts to help increase his chances of eventually being released to a halfway house.
“I am doing my best,” he wrote in a recent message, “to hang on.”
Sterling, 48, was convicted last year of giving journalist and author James Risen classified information about a highly secretive operation targeting Iran’s nuclear program. The case was perhaps the greatest courtroom success of a presidential administration that has pursued more leak cases than all of its predecessors combined, and one that could have lasting impact.
Sterling discussed his case and his life with a Washington Post reporter in a months-long back-and-forth over the prison’s electronic messaging system. Prison officials also allowed him an hour-long telephone interview with the reporter but denied an in-person visit.
The correspondence was thorough and wide-ranging, offering some of the first public glimpses into Sterling’s life behind bars; his relationship with his wife, Holly; and his thoughts on Risen — who, by Sterling’s view of things, could come forward and exonerate him.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the case, though federal prosecutors have asserted previously that Sterling’s trial “laid to rest” any doubts about his guilt. Through an attorney, Risen declined to comment.
Sentenced to 3½ years in prison, Sterling reported to Federal Correctional Institution, Englewood, in June and is not projected to be released until 2018. He said he has not made any real friends at the facility, which also houses former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and Jared Fogle, who was Subway’s pitchman.
Sterling, who said he plans to start working out again when his motivation returns, said he grapples, at times, with thoughts of suicide but insists that he promised his wife he would not “lose all hope and make such a move.”
Holly, who met Sterling on Match.com in 2004 and married him three years later, has been her husband’s biggest booster. On Wednesday, she spoke at a news conference in the District sponsored by ExposeFacts, Reporters Without Borders and RootsAction.org, urging people to sign a petition that asks President Obama to pardon her husband.
Later, a group of supporters — which included prominent professor and activist Cornel West and another former CIA officer convicted in a leak case, John Kiriakou — walked to the White House carrying reams of paper containing what they said was just short of 150,000 signatures.
“It is wrong, and you have the power, and you need to do what is right,” Holly said, directing her remarks at Obama.
Sterling rations his phone calls so he can speak to Holly, who works in the foster-care system in Missouri, for 10 minutes every day, and he hopes that her finances keep allowing her to visit every month. He said he longs for the day when he can provide for her and “be back in the world.” Holly says there is no doubt that she will wait for him.
“We are not going to let them take away the foundation of our marriage and our relationship,” Holly said. “They can destroy everything else, but they’re not destroying that.”
The case has dragged on for more than a decade now. Sterling, the youngest of six brothers who grew up in Missouri, joined the CIA in the early 1990s after answering an employment ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He worked a variety of assignments — including on the Iran operation — but his relationship with his superiors soured as he began to feel he was being discriminated against. He sued over his treatment in 2001 and was fired months later.
Sterling soon found himself with mounting legal expenses and no job. He said he lived in his car for a time and worked as what he termed a “manny” — babysitting for friends in exchange for room and board. By the time he met Holly, he had started work as a fraud investigator for a healthcare company, but he soon began hearing rumblings he was being investigated for a leak.
Sterling said two FBI agents visited him in 2005, and Holly testified before a federal grand jury in Alexandria the next year. Holly said prosecutors asked her if she knew about an “Operation Merlin,” or an author named “James Risen.” Shortly after she arrived back home in Missouri, she said, agents searched her home.
More than four years later, Sterling was indicted on charges that he provided classified information to Risen for his 2006 book, “State of War.” Prosecutors alleged Sterling told Risen about how the CIA paid a Russian scientist to try to get faulty nuclear plans to Iranian officials, even describing a clandestine meeting with the scientist in California’s wine country. Risen’s book characterized the operation as a botched one because the flaws in the nuclear plans were easily detectable.
Justice Department lawyers initially tried to compel Risen to testify, and though they later abandoned their efforts, they did so only after a federal appeals court ruled reporters had no protection against subpoenas to take the stand in criminal cases.
The decision gave prosecutors a powerful tool to force journalists to reveal their sources. Sterling said it left him feeling like a sideshow in his own criminal case.
“There was so much outcry about the potential of his being forced to testify and no real concern for whether I was innocent or not,” he wrote. “There was no concern that a life, a real person was being persecuted.”
Norman Solomon, a journalist and activist who has come to consider Sterling a friend, said he first became interested in the case because of Risen but soon came to realize “there was another part of this saga.” He attended every day of Sterling’s trial, and after Sterling was convicted, used frequent flier miles so Sterling and his wife could return home to Missouri. He is one of a few people who has visited Sterling behind bars, where he said he and Sterling talked about everything from “jazz in the 1920s and Louis Armstrong to politics and his trial.”
During their visit, Sterling seemed simply “stunned by the injustice of it all,” Solomon said.
“He grew up really feeling that he was going to make it out of the situation that is so often consigned to poor, black Americans, and so he really was resolute, from everything I understand, that he wasn’t going to end up behind bars, he wasn’t going to use drugs, he wasn’t going to break the law,” Solomon said. “My impression is that he’s stunned. In a sense, his worst case scenario, that he had dedicated his life to be in the opposite situation of, has come to pass, in that he’s a black man in a federal prison.”
Holly Sterling, fourth from left, stands with supporters urging President Obama to pardon Jeffrey Sterling (Matt Zapotosky/ The Washington Post)
Prosecuting those who leak classified information has been a hallmark of the Obama administration, which has pursued more such cases than all its predecessors combined. Sterling said he believes his treatment was particularly harsh considering what happened to other more, prominent people. Gen. David H. Petraeus, for example, gave his mistress and biographer access to classified materials and was sentenced to only two years of probation and fined $100,000, Sterling said.
Even presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, whom political rivals have alleged mishandled classified information related to her use of a personal e-mail account while she was Secretary of State, seems to have benefited from her position, Sterling said.
“Again, a high ranking official who should know better, but completely given a pass, and almost an apologetic pass,” he said of Clinton. “So how should us regular citizens feel, especially with heightened concerns about national security?”
Prosecutors have long said Sterling’s case was different — and, in many ways, worse — than those to which he sought to compare himself. At the trial, prosecutors cast him as a vindictive ex-employee. They alleged he was upset over losses in his various legal squabbles with the CIA, and he leaked details about a classified operation to Risen to get back at the employer that fired him. The government said he effectively shut down an important and sensitive program designed to put faulty nuclear plans in the hands of Iranians and put the lives of those working with the CIA at risk.
Jurors agreed — convicting Sterling of all nine criminal counts. Several jurors declined to speak for this story, and others did not return messages.
Sterling, who did not take the stand in his own defense, denied he ever provided any classified information to Risen or served as a source for Risen’s 2006 book, “State of War,” or for any other reporter. He acknowledged that he knew Risen, who wrote a story about his discrimination lawsuit against the CIA, and said at one time, he even considered Risen a friend.
“He was the only person out there who listened and had any genuine interest in the discrimination I was facing at the CIA,” Sterling said. He said he does not harbor any anger toward Risen now — even though he contends that if Risen were to testify, that would effectively exonerate him. During previous legal proceedings, his lawyers took no position on whether Risen should be forced to testify.
“He wasn’t the one that fired me, he wasn’t the one that brought these charges, he wasn’t the one that did the search warrant at my home,” Sterling said. “I can’t answer for someone else. I can only answer for myself. I hold no ill will for him. He did not create the situation.”
For her part, Holly said she pressed for an explanation about why Risen could not simply vindicate her husband — even if he wouldn’t reveal the identities of his source or sources.
“I asked that specific question to our lawyers, ‘Why can’t he just get up there and say it wasn’t Jeffrey?’” Holly said. “I understand, and I feel that there’s a lot of mistrust in our government, and the citizens of our country need to know what’s going on, but I’m not okay that my husband is innocent and is sitting in prison right now.”
Sterling is appealing his case, while Holly pursues other avenues to secure his release.
“This is an outrageous miscarriage of justice,” Holly wrote in an open letter posted with the petition on Change.org and elsewhere. “My husband was wrongfully sentenced to prison simply because he was in touch with a journalist.”
She is also working to keep her husband’s spirits up, putting money in his prison commissary account so he can buy odds and ends like gym shoes or an MP3 player, and flying to Colorado once a month to see him. Their visits, she said, are necessary but wrenching. She spends all day Saturday and Sunday with Jeffrey, spending $40 at the vending machine so they can eat together. By the time she walks out, she said, she is usually crying.
Sterling said the sound of Holly’s crying is one of his most vivid memories from the day he was convicted. But without her now, he said, he does not know that he could persevere.
“She is such an incredible person and I know without her, I would never be able to endure any of this,” he wrote. “Truly, my fondest wish is just to get home to her.”