WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Thursday charged a former CIA clandestine officer with leaking classified information about a secret U.S. effort to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program to New York Times reporter James Risen.
Jeffrey Alexander Sterling, who served in the CIA between 1993 and 2002, was arrested by the FBI in St. Louis Thursday and charged in a 10-count indictment with disclosing national defense information and obstruction of justice. At his arraignment later in the day, U.S. Magistrate Judge Terry I. Adelman told him he would be detained through the weekend because the government had declared him a danger to the community. Another detention hearing was scheduled for 2 p.m. Monday.
The arrest of Sterling caps a controversial, years-long leak investigation that became a high priority item for two administrations and led to two separate grand jury subpoenas of Risen, one of the Times’ top reporters on national security and intelligence issues, in an effort to get him to identify his sources.
The government was apparently ultimately able to make its case against Sterling without any assistance from the reporter. (The indictment doesn’t mention Risen by name, but a senior government official confirmed to NBC that the case involves Sterling’s dealings with Risen.) David Kelley, a lawyer for Risen, told NBC that his client “did not provide any information directly or indirectly” to the government. Asked if Risen cooperated in any way, Kelley said: “He did not.” He had no other comment on the indictment.
Ed MacMahon, a lawyer for Sterling, said: “He maintains his innocence.”
The case involves the disclosure in Risen’s 2006 book, “State of War,” of a CIA program called “Operation Merlin.” Risen described it as a botched attempt under the Clinton administration to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program by giving flawed blueprints for key components to a Russian nuclear scientist who had defected. The idea was that the Russian scientist, who was covertly working for the CIA, would feed the flawed designs to the Iranians. But according to the book, the CIA’s efforts went awry when the scientist got nervous and instead tipped off the Iranians to the flaws in the designs. According to Risen, this ended up helping Iran “accelerate its weapon development.” The CIA has always insisted that Risen’s reporting was “inaccurate.”
The indictment essentially charges Sterling with leaking to Risen information about the Iranian program in retaliation for the handling of an employment discrimination case he filed against the CIA. It states that Sterling, who worked in the CIA between May 1993 and January 2002, had served for part of that time as the chief operations officer handling a “human asset” in a program related to the weapons capabilities of a foreign country.
After Sterling left the CIA, he filed a lawsuit against the agency in January 2002 alleging he had been discriminated against because he was African American. Times reporter Risen wrote about the lawsuit two months later in a story that identified Sterling as an officer who worked on the Iranian desk at CIA headquarters who was rebuffed in his efforts to be given new assignments and was later fired by the agency.
The story quoted Sterling as saying his supervisor on the Iran Task Force rejected his request to work on sensitive Iranian cases on the grounds that his physical presence made such assignments too risky. “You kind of stick out as a big black guy,” Sterling said his supervisor told him, according to the March 2, 2002, story by Risen.
According to the indictment, Sterling first raised his concerns about Operation Merlin when he met with two staffers of the Senate Intelligence Committee in March 2003. At the time, the indictment alleges, he “falsely characterized certain facts and circumstances” relating to the program and “falsely reported” that it had been “flawed from its inception based solely upon his mischaracterization of a single remark” by a participant in the program.
Then in April 2003, according to the indictment, Risen contacted the CIA’s public affairs director to say that he planned to write a story about the classified program. That prompted U.S. government officials to meet with Risen and representatives of the Times about the “national security implications” of publishing such information. The Times never published Risen’s story. A senior government official familiar with the case told NBC that Condoleezza Rice, then national security advisor under President George W. Bush, was among those who urged the Times not to publish Risen’s information.
But Risen and Sterling continued to communicate, according to the indictment, which cited e-mails and phone records. “I’m sorry if I failed you so far but I really enjoy talking to you and would like to continue,” Risen wrote to Sterling in a May 16, 2004, e-mail, according to the indictment. Then in September 2004, Risen submitted a proposal for the book that ultimately became “State of War.”
The indictment is the fourth case over the past year in which the Justice Department under President Barack Obama has charged former government employees with disclosing classified information, far exceeding the number of such prosecutions brought by previous administrations.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.