CIA WHISTLEBLOWER JEFFREY STERLING’S LIFE AS AN “UNWANTED SPY” | Intercepted with Jeremy Scahill |


Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted. [Music interlude.] JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill coming to you from
the offices of The Intercept in New York City and this is Episode 109 of Intercepted. George W. Bush: There can be no excuse for
anyone entrusted with vital intelligence to leak it and no excuse for any newspaper to
print it. JS: In the spring of 2003, just after the
invasion of Iraq began, my colleague James Risen, who was then a national security reporter
at the New York Times, found himself in an office in the West Wing of the White House. Sitting across from him was the National Security
Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, as well as George Tenet, who was then the director of the Central
Intelligence Agency. Risen was there because he had planned to
publish a story about Operation Merlin, a half-baked CIA scheme that had tried to disrupt
Iran’s nuclear weapons development. Risen had information that Operation Merlin,
if it had been successfully carried out, would have possibly achieved the opposite goal potentially
helping Iran to actually advance its program. Condoleezza Rice warned the New York Times
that publishing that story could get people killed, and she strongly urged the Times not
to publish James Risen’s story. In declassified talking points from this meeting,
Rice noted: “If you write it, you endanger lives and national security.” Risen’s editors at the New York Times sided
with the Bush White House, and they spiked the story. Bill Keller: The ground rules of the meeting,
which we agreed to were that it would be off the record because the president wanted to
present us with what he said were classified details about the effectiveness of the program
that he thought would persuade us not to publish the article. JS: Three years later, Risen wrote a book
called “State of War.” James Risen: I decided the only way the story
would ever see the light was to put it in a book. JS: He was able to finally write in detail
about Operation Merlin. JR: One of the stories that had been held
by the New York Times that I had put into that was another story. It was about a crazy screwed up CIA operation
involving Iran and its nuclear program. JS: He was also intentionally vague about
the sources of this highly classified sensitive information. Only James Risen knew the identity of his
source or sources. And now James Risen had a serious problem. The government also wanted to know who he
had talked to, and they seemed intent on forcing him to divulge his source. JR: The summer of 2007, we got a FedEx letter
from the Justice Department, saying we want to talk to you. We want all your information about your sources
on this chapter. JS: The government wanted to know so badly
that they issued Risen a subpoena in an effort to compel him to testify in front of a criminal
grand jury about who his source was for the Iran story. Risen refused to cooperate. He would fight that subpoena for the next
seven years against both the Bush and Obama administrations’ Justice Departments. It turns out that the same grand jury which
Risen evaded had been assembled to prosecute a former CIA case officer. His name was Jeffrey Sterling. Prosecutors allege that it was Sterling, who
had told Jim Risen about Operation Merlin. Jeffrey Sterling served in the CIA from 1993
to 2002 where he was an Iran specialist. Trained in Farsi, Sterling was one of the
very few African American clandestine officers at the CIA. This would become a central fact in the story
of Jeffrey Sterling, particularly after Sterling filed an internal equal opportunity complaint
about the spy agency’s alleged racial discrimination against him. The CIA was no stranger to such lawsuits. In fact, a few years before Sterling made
his complaint of blatant racism within the agency known, a judge had approved a nearly
$1 million settlement to 400 CIA women on the basis of gender discrimination. Jeffrey Sterling was not so lucky. He eventually sued the CIA in court, but the
government claimed that in pursuing his case, Jeffrey Sterling would necessarily have to
reveal state secrets and so his lawsuit was dismissed. Soon after, Sterling was subjected to a security
investigation and the CIA ultimately terminated his employment a month after 9/11. Sterling had a tough life after leaving the
agency, contemplated suicide and he eventually started to rebuild his life. But the CIA and the U.S. government had not
forgotten about him. In 2010, Jeffrey Sterling was indicted by
the grand jury on charges under the Espionage Act, and he was accused of leaking sensitive
national security information to James Risen of the New York Times. As Sterling’s trial unfolded, the overwhelming
amount of attention paid to his case was in the context of the Obama administration’s
attempt to force Risen to give up his source. Rachel Maddow: This is not the first time
that James Risen has been subpoenaed for his sources and his documents on this exact report. Newscaster: James Risen, the New York Times
reporter who faces potential jail time for not revealing a confidential source is calling
out the Obama administration as hypocritical. Newscaster: This, as New York Times reporter
James Risen is speaking out. He says he’s been targeted by the White
House for years in an attempt to get information about sources for a book he wrote. JS: Sterling was ultimately convicted in 2015
and sentenced to three and a half years in prison. Newscaster: Hours ago, ex-CIA officer Jeffrey
Sterling was sentenced to three and a half years in prison, two and a half weeks after
General David Petraeus got away with two years probation and $100,000 fine. JS: He did more than two years and is now,
once again, a free man. He has no job, but he does have his liberty. Jeffrey Sterling’s story is particularly
prescient today as we witness the Trump administration intensify the prosecution of whistleblowers. Donald J. Trump: Who’s the person who gave
the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to a spy. You know what we used to do in the old days
when we were smart with spies and treason? We used to handle it a little differently
than we do now. JS: At the center of the current impeachment
inquiry against Donald Trump is the role of a whistleblower about Trump’s alleged attempts
to blackmail the new Ukrainian president into announcing an investigation into Joe Biden’s
son, Hunter, and his work on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company while his
father was vice president. Jeffrey Sterling has written a memoir of his
struggles with the CIA. It’s called “Unwanted Spy: The Persecution
of an American Whistleblower.” Jeffrey Sterling joins me now. Jeffrey, welcome to Intercepted. Jeffrey Sterling: Thanks for having me on. JS: Describe how you ended up joining the
CIA. JSt: My third year in law school — and,
of course, I’m wondering about what my next steps are going to be — I was reading the
paper during lunch and saw an ad: “Join the CIA.” It was a great ad. I mean, there was a drawing of a guy looking
over a canal. I wanted to get out there and see the world. Announcer: Consider a career with Central
Intelligence Agency. Be America’s first line of defense. Why work for a company when you can serve
your nation? The CIA, the work of a nation, the center
of intelligence. JSt: My five brothers, three of them served
in the military services. And so that aspect of service was instilled
within me and I thought joining [the] CIA would tap into those areas that I’m fascinated
with, international relations. So, I jumped at the opportunity. JS: What was the first job that you took on? JSt: My first real assignment after all the
training was the Iran Task Force, and I was just thrilled to be there. Then, I went into language training. And then, hopefully after that, making the
plans and aspirations to go abroad. JS: What was it that interested you about
working on Iran? And maybe explain to people what was happening
at the time between the U.S. and Iran. JSt: Growing up, I was that nerdy kid who
stayed home and watched the news. And one of the biggest news stories going
on at that time was the Iran hostage crisis. Newscaster: The American embassy in Tehran
is in the hands of Muslim students tonight. Spurred on by an anti-American speech by the
Ayatollah Khomeini, they stormed the embassy, fought the marine guards for three hours,
overpowered them, and took dozens of American hostages. JSt: I was glued to the TV during that and
reports in the newspapers. And so, I felt it was a dream come true for
me to work on the Iran desk, the Iran task force at the CIA. And the tensions had been quite high regarding
Iran. So, my work on the Iran Task Force was considered
important. And I worked on some very important and very
vital operations. I mean, I was the case officer, my job was
to recruit spies. As a case officer, you’re a recruiter, essentially,
you’re a gatherer of that intelligence necessary that policymakers are interested in, especially
on Iran. So, I was quite active and successful, by
the way, in the work I was doing with the Iran desk. JS: What kinds of activities were you involved
with to the extent you can talk about it? JSt: Targeting individuals of interest, finding
some way to get to that individual and maybe recruit that individual. So, I was involved in operations like that. Gather that in intelligence about Iran from
the inner circles in Iran, because, of course, Iran was a place we didn’t have a presence. JS: What were your first impressions of the
CIA as an institution, once you were done with training, and then you’re there, you’re
inside, you’re working? JSt: Extreme pride in everything about the
organization. I mean, I went into the CIA, not with my eyes
closed. I knew the history of the organization, the
controversies around it, but I felt, OK, I’m going in. I’m not going to let the place change me,
but I want to be part of this organization. When I went in, I was just really taken by
the mission. I was taken by what I was told: that I would
be judged on my abilities. As I saw, that’s not the case. JS: When did you start to identify problems
or experience what you perceived at the time as the beginning stages of discrimination? JSt: I guess I saw the seeds of it when I
first got there. A Black employee who had been in there a long
time asked me why I was there. What he was saying was, an educated Black
man with talent, why are you here at a place where you’re not going to be recognized
for your abilities? And in a way, I took a little offense to that. And that just made me even more determined,
because, I said, well, if that’s your viewpoint — I mean, he was there at the CIA as a Black
man, he had been there a long time. And my viewpoint going in was I had as much
a right to be there as anyone else. And I’m going to be judged on my abilities,
not the color of my skin. But that was kind of letting me know what
I was walking into. But as my career progressed, I noticed things
like assignments were being denied to me. I wasn’t being given the same tools as other
officers in my same category. When I joined the Iran Task Force, I was the
only African American on the staff. It’s a rather large staff but I didn’t
look at that as a disadvantage for me. I just felt, hey, I’m another CIA employee
in this effort. It was really apparent and quickly from the
beginning, that I was being treated differently. JS: Yeah, I’d like you to tell the story
and you, of course, write about this in the book, but at one point early on in your career
at the CIA, you were passed over for an overseas assignment. And you were told basically that it was because
you stuck out. What was the assignment and what happened? JSt: It was an assignment in Europe. And I asked my supervisors directly because
I had had enough. I was, even overseas, I was seeing other officers
receiving the tools that I was not receiving, receiving opportunities that I would either
wouldn’t know about or find out about afterwards and basically told I was too late. So, things like that. And I asked, why was this happening with me
and the CIA being what it is, they had no compunction, looked me in the face and say,
well, you kind of stick out as a big Black guy speaking Farsi. And I was dumbstruck by that. My only response was, well, when did you realize
I was Black? And why does that make a difference? Then everything sort of started making sense
and in a twisted sort of way for me at that point, but I wasn’t going to just sit back
and let that happen. So, I made my complaints to them known and
the answer was basically deal with it. And that opened my eyes to the realization
that I did not want to believe was the case of how I was being treated as an officer at
the CIA. Even with that, there was the decision, well,
do I walk away from this place? Or do I make something of this? And I said, well, maybe I need to go to another
area still focusing on Iran. So, I went to other areas within the agency. And I’m still getting that same sense of
things, but I was determined to work hard and show them they’re wrong in this attitude
about me because I had proven myself. I don’t look like Jack Ryan. I mean, no one would have ever suspected me
of being with the CIA. So, I had no problems in going many places
in the world that other officers would have had problems. Things continued and I eventually ended up
in New York and there, it was the same story. I was not receiving the same tools as the
other officers. But I was expected to produce two, maybe three
times more than them. And when I talk about tools, what I mean is
cover, basic cover for someone in the CIA to be able to get into those avenues, where
individuals will be who will have information of interest. JS: Cover, just for people that don’t follow
this closely, it’s like an alternative identity, supposedly, what your job is that allows you
to work. You’re working for the CIA, but you’ll
be a State Department attache or potentially someone from the military and they assign
you a military cover. And what was the rationale for that? JSt: I was a logistics officer. I was little more than a janitor, not to denigrate
the logistics officers, but for me, having that sort of title — and I wasn’t even
given credentials, I was just given a piece of paper that had been laminated, and said
a U.S. government logistics officer — wouldn’t open no doors for me at all. Even despite that, I had successes, but you
can only go so far without having the support of your organization. So, I got to a point where, OK, this is enough. So, many years I tried and worked hard to
prove to these individuals, but it didn’t matter to them. All they could see was the color of my skin. JS: What happens when you file your discrimination
suit? What’s the reaction from the agency? JSt: Feigned shock, and, of course, as with
so many of these types of complaints, laying the blame solely on me to talk about, well,
you’ve been given every opportunity as everyone else and I will point out specific facts,
but then they would want to not talk about anyone else or any other situation. And I think there was a bit of anger as well. How dare I say that they discriminated against
me? Look how good they’ve treated me and I was
pointing out, no, look how bad you’ve been treating me. And then they go through their machinations,
“investigation.” Mine was, there was no investigation, really. And then when that process is over, and of
course, they ruled against me that I was not being discriminated against. Then you have the option to go to the Commission,
the EEO [Equal Employment Opportunity] commission, outside of the agency, or you can filed in
federal court. The crux of a lot of the activity discrimination
against me, it happened in New York when I was here, and I filed suit in the Southern
District of New York. That was shortly after 9/11. And this was also at the same time that I
made my complaints known about Operation Merlin. JS: Explain to the best of your ability with
what you’re allowed to say what the program was and what you started noticing or your
concerns. JSt: The purpose of the program, as it was
told to me was to thwart the Iranian nuclear program by instilling flawed plans for a nuclear
warhead. Thereby, once they would use the plans, they
wouldn’t work and they would stall their program by a number of years. I was given assurances that the highest levels
of government had approved it, there were safeguards in place. They had worked with the national labs and
put in a flaw in the plan that no one would be able to detect. And I was also told that the intermediary
we were using — one of my main jobs was preparing this Russian scientist to get in
touch with Iranians and make a deal to try to give them these plans. JS: You’re talking quickly past something
I think for a lot of people would be snatched straight from any number of espionage series
they watch on television right now. You cultivated a relationship with a Russian
scientist who was in the United States? JSt: Yes. JS: One of your jobs was going to be to get
this individual that you had cultivated as an asset, or a source, to try to then pass
these fraudulent plans on to the Iranians in the hopes that they would use them and
that it would stall their nuclear program. JSt: Yeah, my job was to find the resources
for this guy and teach him and train him how to approach and deal with Iranians, did a
good job. But the light came on for me when he was first
given the plans to review. When he saw the plans and we’re at this
meeting, it was in California — this is in the book as well. He immediately saw that they were flawed. I mean, all the bells and whistles went off
in my head, wait a minute, the whole dynamic of this has changed. I went to my direct supervisor who was there
and I said, this is not what I was told. This could be actually dangerous because if
the Iranians have these plans, and they see immediately that there was a flaw, I mean,
scientists being scientists, they’re going to fix it and they’re going to make it work. So, instead of stalling their program, we
may be speeding it up. JS: What you noticed in the “flawed plans”
was that there was enough real information that could be exploited by the Iranians, maybe
even information they didn’t already have, that could be used to rather than slow the
program, advance the program. JSt: Absolutely. I mean, it was a complete set. It was a complete plan. The response to my concerns that were raised
was “shut up.” We know what we’re doing. That immediately kind of said to me, oh, have
you been looking at me just as an interloper or an outsider to this thing? And I made my concerns known to others within
the agency as I was supposed to with concerns like that, that fear upon them all. And the operation continued. I, at that point, it seemed like my removal
had started to remove me from that operation. At the same time, a lot of the pressures,
the discrimination treatment intensified again, levying upon me requirements of my job three
times more than anyone else, but not the same tools. And so it all coalesced, and I filed suits
and then was basically removed from being an active officer in the CIA. JS: At what point did you talk with the New
York Times and Jim Risen? How did that relationship start or that meeting
start? JSt: After I was kicked out of New York, because
of the suit I was filing, I met Mr. Risen to discuss my discrimination suit. He was very amenable to listening and he ended
up writing an article about it. And even in the trial, the prosecution admitted
that there was no classified information divulged in that article, and I also reached out to
the House Intelligence Committee to, kind of, open the door or turn a light on to the
discrimination that was going on at the agency. How I was being treated. I met with some staffers there, and that eventually
went nowhere. JS: Were you exclusively talking to them about
the discrimination issues? JSt: The main point was the discrimination
and at that time, going through the EEO process, the agency was saying that I was a failed
employee. I wasn’t living up to my expectations. But I pointed out to them the operations — as
I was allowed to. They have their proper clearances to hear
complaints, told them the aspects of my career and the operations I was involved in. I was like, well, they’re saying I’m a
failed employee, yet I was involved in one of the more important operations at the agency. So, what is it here? So, I had to give them details. I wanted them to have the full picture. JS: Did you tell them about your concerns
with Operation Merlin specifically? JSt: Absolutely, because as part of the discrimination,
the moment I started complaining about it, then more aspects of discrimination started
happening with me. And I just thought that was the picture that
I needed to put together for the House Intelligence Committee as I was speaking to the staffers. JS: I know that you can’t get inside of
the minds or motivations of others at the CIA at the time, but if you truly wanted to
engage in a successful intelligence operation, potentially to slow Iran’s nuclear program,
and — it’s not like you were saying we shouldn’t be doing this. You were saying, look, we may be giving them
information they don’t already have. No one at the agency said, “Oh, thank you,
Jeffrey Sterling. Yeah, you’re right, we should amend this
or look at it.” That didn’t happen at all? They didn’t change it as a result of this
or — JSt: Not at all, even the scientists who put
the plans together didn’t see it as a problem. No one did. JS: I’m not understanding how a scientist
would be like, oh, no, this is no problem to give it to them. How do you know you were right? JSt: From the indications that I was given
by the Russian scientist. I mean, he was a scientist. He knew what the plans were supposed to be,
what they were for, and he immediately saw the flaw. And of course, there’s been speculation
about well, what was the real purpose of this? Was it, as I was told, to stall the plan,
the Iranian effort? Or was it to basically just plant evidence
of trying to develop a nuclear weapon program? I didn’t have those thoughts at the time. I’m going on the assumption of what I was
told, what I was working with. And then when I see that that was not the
case, the dangers of it immediately struck me. And that’s why I eventually went to the
Senate Intelligence Committee just after we went into Iraq. I felt I couldn’t serve at the agency, but
maybe I can serve in this way. Because I didn’t want our soldiers going
into a situation that I could have been involved in to the point of a nuclear weapon, walking
into a situation where an enemy would be using a nuclear weapon and no one would really have
an idea about it or at the time, of course, there was a talk about dirty bombs. Well, those plans could have been used to
help someone make a dirty bomb and I didn’t know where or what these plans had been used
for. So, I made that, sort of, fateful decision
to approach the Senate Intelligence Committee with my concerns. JS: Did you view yourself as blowing the whistle
or being a whistleblower when you set up these meetings with the House and Senate on the
issue of Merlin? JSt: At the time, no, I did not view myself
as a whistleblower. I felt I was doing the right thing. No one that I — I’d taken the steps internally
on both issues to raise my concerns or stand up for myself. They didn’t want to hear anything I had
to say and everything I had to say I was wrong. So, I went through the proper channels to
make those complaints. I didn’t view myself as a whistleblower. I think that realization came to me actually,
when I was sitting in prison. JS: At what point does an investigation of
you begin? JSt: After the meeting with the Senate Intelligence
Committee and it’s maybe months or so after that, I hear, beginning to hear rumblings
of an investigation, a leak and that all fingers were pointing at me. And I was shocked by that. How could this — what? And I said, look, I’ve got nothing to hide. I will absolutely speak to whoever wants to
speak to me about this. I was shocked and I was offended that I would
be accused of that because I had worked so hard with dedication to the agency and serving
my country in that way and to be saying that I was, I violated the law in that sense, was
shocking, and I was incensed about it. JS: What was your understanding of what they
were essentially at this point unofficially accusing you of? JSt: They were unofficially accusing me of
being a source for James Risen who eventually had written a book. But I guess he had some rumblings, there were
some machinations going on about him writing an article that lo and behold, had information
about Operation Merlin. That’s when I looking back when I start
hearing about and getting indications that I’m being investigated for being the source
for the article that he was going to write. I mean, immediately I’m on a defensive,
of course, wait a minute, this is wrong. And it was shocking to me that, wait a minute,
I went through the proper channels with this. How dare you say that I’m a source of this. So, it was a very surreal aspect for me, at
that time. JS: At what point then do you have your first
official encounter with law enforcement about any of this? JSt: I did volunteer actually to go speak
with the FBI. I had them give me a letter, an immunity letter,
basically, for speaking with them. I still have it. I’m gonna frame that letter. And so I spoke with them and told them exactly
how I had spoken with people at the House Intelligence Committee, the Senate Intelligence
Committee. The House was about the discrimination mainly,
but I necessarily had to talk about Merlin and I certainly talked about Merlin — JS: At the Senate. JSt: At the Senate. Now, this was I believe, 2002, 2003. I’d heard nothing after that. Nothing from them until they showed up at
my door in 2006. JS: You had no indication this was coming? JSt: No, there were rumblings I had heard
from my previous attorney that there was a grand jury. They were investigating and it was kind of
confusing because so much time had passed. And I had moved on to a new career. Because when I was fired from the agency,
I was pretty much blackballed from any organization, commercial or government within the intelligence
community. No one would touch me and that was shocking
to me because after 9/11, I was an experienced Farsi speaking case officer, but no one would
touch me. I lost everything. I couldn’t find work. The money certainly ran out. Depression. I was stripped of my cover. So, I was going from a clandestine world to
the real world, if you will. All my friends were at the agency. Well, none of them would have contact with
me and I didn’t want to put them in a precarious situation so I didn’t reach out to them. So, there’s really no one that I could talk
about my tribulations at the agency and attempted suicide. Obviously, it wasn’t successful, but you
know, everything lost. So, I packed my car and I had to leave. It was hard to go home with your tail between
your legs, sort of things like that. And I would just go from rest stop to rest
stop for a couple of weeks just to, just not knowing what to do, where to go, and not wanting
to face the realities of things that had happened but I did eventually end up back in my hometown
in Missouri. And from there I again trying to find work
and find anything. Friends had recently had a baby. They lived in the St. Louis area. And for room and board, I offered to be their
live-in nanny. So, I go from CIA case officer to manny, if
you will. JS: Did you cultivate the baby as an asset? JSt: I think that baby cultivated me as an
asset because just the smile and the innocence of a child helped me, pulled me up out of
my misery. JS: Maybe that baby helped save your life. JSt: Definitely, got another job with health
insurance company as a fraud investigator. I was working there and [was] quite successful. And I had entered a new relationship with
my eventual wife, Holly. And I had kind of set these things aside. My discrimination suit had gone. I filed in New York, of course. The government immediately filed to remove
the case because it would pose a threat to national security. The judges here saw that it was a prima facie
case of discrimination and said it should go forward. Then the government made the move to change
the venue because CIA was saying all of my employment activities and records were in
Virginia. So, the venue should be moved. The court agreed to do that. The moment it was moved to Virginia, that
court, the government rose the issue, again, of removing for national security. That court being what it is, they agreed. I tried to go to the Supreme Court, they refused
to hear it. And so that was the end of my discrimination
suit. But I was living and just trying to move on
beyond all of that. JS: And then what happens? JSt: Come home one day, go out to get the
mail and a car pulls up. And there’s the same two FBI agents I had
spoken to years before. And I was shocked. I think “What are you doing here?” And everything just sort of fell apart within
me. It’s like the past is reaching up and grabbing
at me again. And how do I fight this? What is going on? It was a shock and disheartening as well. And I was angry. I was angry that they’re, you know, they’re
still coming in. How many years had passed with all of this? And it was really smug, trying to be friends
with me. Oh, we were worried about you because we think
— and they showed me pictures of what they said was an Iranian — we think this person
may be following you because of this book. And I didn’t even know at that time that
the book had come out. I had no idea. JS: You’re referring to James Risen’s
book. [Crosstalk.] JS: Published in 2005. JSt: Yeah, I had no idea. Of course, I wouldn’t let them in. They’re like, oh, can we come in and sit
down? I’m like no, have you reached out to my
attorney? My attorney with my discrimination case. And they said, no. Well, I’m not speaking with you. Then after that, I really hear nothing from
them. And time passes, I getting more information
about the grand jury, and that they’re pointing the fingers at me. JS: Did you go out and get Risen’s book? JSt: I went to a bookstore and just saw the
book. I was like, OK, this is what they’re talking
about. But again, hadn’t even known the book was
out or anything like that. And the only reason I knew the book was there
was because they told me. JS: The FBI told you. JSt: They told me and so after that I secured
the services of another attorney Edward McMahon because this was now a criminal investigation. Not my wife at the time but Holly, this I
believe was 2006. Holly gets a call from her attorney saying
the FBI are coming with a search warrant. As soon as she hung up the call, the doorbell
rang, and there was this team, this massive team of people, vehicles all over in the front
of my house, descended upon the house and served the search warrant. I just couldn’t believe it. And there’s just nothing I can do about
it. You feel so helpless and your home’s being
invaded. JS: What did they say as the underlying justification
for the warrant? JSt: They felt and this was the crux of their
case, I had a document related to Operation Merlin and that’s what I provided to Risen
and of course, during the trial, they never produced the document or even said I had access
to it. JS: When did the indictment come down on you? JSt: I wasn’t indicted until I believe late
2010. JS: Bush is out of office now. He’s served his two terms. Obama is more than a year into his term when
you get indicted. JSt: Yeah. The FBI had during the Bush administration,
they had dropped the investigation. The lead investigator with the FBI admitted
on the stand they had no evidence and two, the reports that she wrote, indicating that
it made no sense for me to do what I was being accused of doing because that would have heard
my discrimination case which at the time was continuing. So, I guess with the change of administration
brought back a “new perspective” on what to bring. And there was certainly no new evidence in
that intervening time. I went to law school, usually your search
warrant and indictment should come shortly after that. I’m talking almost five years. Late-2010, I underwent knee replacement surgery. So, I was home recuperating, and I was getting
ready to go back to work and this was in January. Well, I get a call from my supervisor saying,
asking if I could come in. And I said, yeah, and I was eager to get back
to work, laid up with the knee replacement and all the hell involved with the physical
therapy and that. And I go to the meeting. And then I’m called up to security at our
building, said there was something with my badge. And I go, “OK, we’re leaving soon. I’ll come up,” but then they became insistent. And I came up and there was the FBI agent
and officers and I was arrested. And that really just showed the insanity of
this whole thing. The whole world knew exactly where I was. I was at home. They didn’t have to make a show out of it. And my employer being complicit in that, that
hurt. She was former FBI. So, I kind of got the sense that they probably
were using her to keep tabs on me and they certainly used her and I’m sure they were,
she was quite willing to then basically set me up. And they did a good show of it. The whole thing was just a show. I felt like it was all an out of body sort
of experience and, it’s like, I moved on from all this. But they obviously didn’t, CIA, Department
of Justice didn’t move on from me. JS: What specifically did they charge you
with? JSt: Unauthorized release of classified information
all in violation of the Espionage Act. And again, are they calling me a traitor? JS: Yeah, a spy against your own country is
what I think most people would think when they hear espionage. JSt: Yeah, what have I done? And it all had the stench of the agency retaliating
against me and the DOJ being complicit in it and the Obama administration adding the
fuel to it. JS: I want to read my colleague, Peter Maass
who wrote a very in depth piece about your case and what happened to you. He wrote the following: “Until Barack Obama
was elected president, the Department of Justice rarely prosecuted leakers. Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence
during Obama’s first term, told The New York Times that a decision was made in 2009
to ‘hang an admiral once in a while,’ as Blair put it, to show would be leakers
that they should not talk to the press. And it appears that Sterling’s all but shut
case was brought back to life as part of that crackdown.” JSt: It became obvious of that throughout
because the trial itself was nothing but a show trial. The CIA was on their grandstand—look how
we do our operations. And how dare Jim Risen write this story and
how dare Sterling leak this information to him. I was the only person investigated. No one else was investigated. One of the staffers that I spoke to at the
Senate Intelligence Committee, as disclosed during the trial was subsequently after the
meeting with me, she was fired from the Senate Intelligence Committee for leaking classified
information and one of those may have been to Mr. Risen. But that none of that seemed to matter. I mean, no direct evidence. There was never anything produced of when
or where I supposedly leaked the information. No, absolutely nothing. JS: And by the way, no one has ever proven
that you gave Jim Risen anything. JSt: No, absolutely. JS: No, I just want to make sure that that’s
clear to people because I think some people think that’s a given. No one has ever offered a shred of proof that
you gave any classified information to James Risen. JSt: Nothing at all. Nothing at all on that regard. And they certainly didn’t even present anything
during the trial, to even show when, where, how. JS: Yeah, I mean, if people want to go back
and look at this, I mean, really you were convicted by a string of innocuous bits of
circumstantial evidence that was woven into essentially a CIA conspiracy theory that masqueraded
as a trial. JSt: And it was an easy target. I think the Obama administration and Eric
Holder saw this as this will be easy. We got this Black employee who lost his suit,
that was there a perspective of it. I think my trial is reflective of an aspect
of Barack Obama that I think a lot of people didn’t have. He wanted to be so far away from, appearing
too Black and with Holder, I think for me, it was an easy target. It was easy for them, and then they could
have that trophy to put on their mantle of another conviction. Condoleezza Rice was called to testify on
behalf of the government. Really didn’t have — I had never met her. She’d never met me. So, what was she going to be testifying about? Just about the veracity of this, the operation
which a lot of the agency individuals got on the stand and said was the most important
in a generation at the agency. But Condoleezza Rice not only was supporting
the government’s case — just by being there. She also supported I guess, the Obama administration
aspect as well. Here’s an upstanding Black citizen, Condoleezza
Rice, juxtapose her against this guy over here, this Black guy over here. We want this kind of African American, not
that kind. JS: Given all these experiences that you’ve
had, any thoughts you want to share about this current situation with the impeachment
inquiry being open with the discussion around the whistleblower, and now these foreign service
officers who are testifying in front of the Congress? JSt: I welcome the attention that whistleblowing
has been getting on this and I love that the discussion is continuing, but I think this
is also showing the opposite side of it, the negative aspects. There are supposed to be protections for whistleblowers. But are there really? The person made the complaint. And then immediately the White House and the
attorney general were notified about it. Those were the subjects of the complaint. That’s the same thing that happened to me
when I went to the Senate and both intelligence committees. They went directly to the source. And that creates a situation for whistleblowers,
that the mechanisms there to protect whistleblowers really are there to identify the whistleblowers
and open them up to criticism. When the subject of the complaint controls
the dialogue about what is or is not a whistleblower, then there are no whistleblowers. There’s only leakers and spies. So, I think and hopefully through all this,
there’s more discussion going to be coming around. And hopefully the policymakers, our representatives
in government will start giving you know, go beyond this window dressing for whistleblowers. It’s great the protections that they’re
wanting to give this current whistleblower. But what about other whistleblowers? What about Edward Snowden? What about Chelsea Manning? What about Reality Winner? Where were the protections and interests there? No, there was the focus only on what the whistleblower
did and not what was revealed. And what is important, whistleblowing is not
about the whistleblower. It’s about that information that the public
is interested in and should be educated about — about wrongdoings in our government. When you shift the focus to the individual
bringing it forward, the whistleblower you’re just trying to distract from the overall issue. And that’s exactly what’s happening now. JS: It’s a really powerful book and also
an incredible and at times devastating American story. It really is. Jeffrey Sterling, thank you very much for
being with us. JSt: Thank you so much for having me on. JS: Jeffrey Sterling is the author of “Unwanted
Spy: The Persecution of an American Whistleblower.” That does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @intercepted. We’re also on Instagram @interceptedpodcast. If you like what we do on this program, you
can support our show by going to theintercept.com/join to become a sustaining member. Intercepted is a production of First Look
Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and
graphic designer. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by
Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

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