The injection of the political realm into the moral realm degrades both. When matters of moral value are seen through a political lens, what one sees is distorted and contaminated. The moral value is never free of conditional circumstances, but it tries not to be enslaved by them. A moral value shines by its integrity, its repudiation of expedience, its shunning of the half truth because of its allegiance and obedience to accurate fact.
Those were my thoughts as I read about the case of former CIA official Jeffrey Sterling who was recently convicted of espionage by a federal court in Alexandria, VA.
However, there are things to keep in mind as we consider this case.
By the year 2000, Iran had for years obtained expertise from Russia and Chinese nuclear specialists equipped to study any blue prints submitted to Iran by countries eager to help Tehran expand its nuclear program. Iran had for years had obtained from the black-market network of the Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan, plans for developing nuclear weapons. Until 2003, Iran had a strategic goal in developing such a weapon – it was to be a deterrent, not against Israel, but the nuclear forces of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
To be plain, Iran certainly was capable of discerning a fake nuclear blueprint from a genuine one.
The CIA’s targets at the time were North Korea, Iraq, and Iran.
After 9/11, Iran was conspicuously efficient in supporting the U.S. / Northern Alliance against the Taliban, which Iran deeply hated, helping the U.S. to rescue its downed pilots, even giving U.S. forces maps on which Taliban targets were to be bombed.
This changed. Under President George Bush, Iran was now a member of “the Axis of Evil.” The earlier smiley face of Iran had been replaced by a harsh face of murder terrorism and exploitation. The designation, “the Axis of Evil," has always had for me the crudity of a cartoon. In addition, it was wrong. Even then, in 2003, Iran was making efforts to hand over to the U.S. top al Qaeda lieutenants, including a son of Osama bin Laden.
Since the Clinton years, low level US and Iranian talks had been taking in Vienna.
The Counterproliferation Division of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations now came up with what they thought was an ingenious plan. Find a prospect, a Russian that could act as an intermediary, vet him, cross-examine him, and use him to transport nuclear plans to Iran in order to sabotage its program. The highlight of this operation was the insertion of defects into the plans that would be passed on to the Iranians. In other words, the aim of this was to send Iran off on a wild goose chase.
(It has an old idea: you implant defects into a weapon for an enemy, and when war comes and he throws the switch, nothing happens. The CIA had already executed such a plan against the Soviets, and we are doing the same thing to China today.)
Then something unspeakable happened.
A scandal occurred. A CIA official told Jim Risen of The New York Times about the plan, and the pitiless furies of “national security” arguments were unleashed, aimed at proving that Risen was the source of articles about the plan printed in The New York Times. Of course, the burden of proving espionage lies with the government. A government should not be allowed to use mere proximity, tangential conversations or vague-mails to prove espionage. In the Sterling case, such encounters are merely circumstantial. They are not proof. A government may infer that something bad happened, but that is mere supposition. the government didn’t make its case. It had facts on peripheral issues e-mails, et, but there was no one piece of evidence that make clear that Sterling was Risen’s source.
Sadly, Sterling was charged with espionage. In making such charges, the burden of proof is always on the government making the charge. In the Sterling trial, The CIA official who allegedly spoke to Risen, Jeffrey Sterling was indicted and for seven years, the federal government brought pitiless pressure on Risen to name Sterling as his source.
One principle of journalism is always honored, one ideal is impetrative stands above all the rest – that is, never give up the name of a source, and unless they are dead and their family gives the reporter permission to the name.
I have read only news accounts of the case, but one fact strikes one as extremely curious. The Iranians never took the bait. One can infer that the Iranian officials thought the US-manufactured nuclear plans bogus. In spite of the CIA’s plan, the Iranians never stirred a hair.
This brings us to the National Intelligence Estimate of 2007. That document said, “We assess with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons.
“We judge with high confidence that the halt lasted at least several years. (Because of intelligence gaps discussed elsewhere in this Estimate, however, DOE and the NIC assess with only moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt to Iran's entire nuclear weapons program.)
“We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007.”
No matter, and never mind.
According to news accounts, Sterling was initially charged with committing ten felonies, seven of which fall under the Espionage Act. The other charges were mail fraud and obstruction of justice. The mail fraud charge was dismissed by the judge last week before deliberation.
Sterling’s case was the first case involving an alleged leak to the press to proceed to a full trial in thirty years. The last case involved Samuel L. Morison, a Navy civilian analyst who was charged under President Ronald Reagan for leaking photographs of Soviet ships to alert America to what he perceived as a new threat.
Notably, Morison’s case was one of the first cases where the Justice Department used the Espionage Act to criminalize a leak. (Morison was later pardoned by President Bill Clinton.)
The conviction of Sterling seems to me to be a vast mistake, the wrong thing done for the wrong reasons.
A news account quoted Jesselyn Radack, a Justice Department whistleblower, attorney and director of the Government Accountability Project’s National Security and Human Rights Division. She said, “It is a new low in the war on whistleblowers and government hypocrisy that CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling was convicted in a purely circumstantial case of ‘leaking.’ It shows how far an embarrassed government will go to punish those who dare to commit the truth.”
Sterling will remain free on bond until his sentencing, which is scheduled for April 24. His defense is working to “seek to have the verdict thrown out” and, if that does not happen, they will appeal.