WASHINGTON – A group of free-speech advocates marched to the White House on Wednesday with a petition asking the president to pardon Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA employee in prison for releasing classified information.
The group first met at the National Press Club to talk about why 150,000 people have signed a petition asking for a presidential pardon for Sterling.
The group said Sterling is a whistleblower and should not have been charged for exposing the truth in a legal way. Norman Sullivan, director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, said Sterling has claimed that all of the allegations in the indictment are false.
“He’s a whistleblower because as all of the testimony from all sides made clear at the trial a year ago, he quite properly, through legal channels, went to the Senate Intelligence Committee staff in early 2003 to voice concerns about the CIA’s botched Operation Merlin,” he said.
Sterling worked for the CIA from 1993 to 2002. Just before he was fired in 2002, Sterling filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Complaint on the CIA, claiming racial discrimination. He was fired shortly after for releasing information about an intelligence program, according to court documents.
Sterling was arrested in January 2011 on allegations of providing classified information to someone identified in court papers as “Author A.” New York Times reporter James Risen, wrote about Operation Merlin in his book “State of War.”
Risen refused to identify Sterling or anyone else as a source for his book. The Justice Department decided not to call him as a witness at Sterling’s trial.
Sterling was tried in the Eastern District of Virginia, in Alexandria. He was convicted on nine felonies, including six counts of unauthorized disclosure of classified information. Sterling began his 42 month sentence June 16 in Colorado, 900 miles away from his home St. Louis.
Jesselyn Radack, head of the Whistleblower and Source Protection Program at ExposeFacts, said the jury had no evidence that Sterling released classified information to Risen. The only evidence the jury had of Sterling releasing information was through legal, proper channels, she said.
“The Justice Department has used the antiquated Espionage Act as a bludgeon to threaten, intimidate, silence and imprison whistleblowers for allegedly mishandling classified information,” she said.
Radack said the misuse of the Espionage Act is unfair, and President Barack Obama’s administration has gone to the extreme in prosecuting whistleblowers.
“The Obama administration has presided over the most draconian crackdown on national security and intelligence community whistleblowers in U.S. history,” she said.
Timothy Karr, senior director of strategy for Free Press, said the Espionage Act is outdated and has been misinterpreted by the Obama administration.
“Eight whistleblowers have been prosecuted in this administration,” Karr said. “That’s more than any presidential administration prior to Obama.”
John Kiriakou, a former CIA employee who was imprisoned for whistleblowing, said Sterling was tried in the Eastern District of Virginia, because no one who is defends national security can win there. He said the courts were out to make sure he would be unemployed and bankrupt.
“Juries in the Eastern District would convict a bologna sandwich if the government asked them to,” he said.
Holly Sterling, Jeffrey Sterling’s wife, said the trial process and sentence have taken a financial toll on her family.
“He’s an extremely intelligent and educated man,” she said. “President Obama took a person that was a productive member of our society that was formally a licensed lawyer in the state of New York, now he is making 26 cents a day tutoring convicts.”
She wrote a letter to Obama in October. Part of it reads:
“Does the government have no shame in destroying one man’s life and wasting tens of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to punish a man who had the audacity to do two things: stand up for his constitutional right and utilize proper channels provided to him to express concern for the citizens of our country?”
Kiriakou said he believes things can happen through the power of voices and signatures.
“One hundred and fifty thousand Americans believe that Jeffrey Sterling is a whistleblower and has no business being in prison,” he said. “So it’s up to us to go to the white house and tell the president that we demand freedom for this innocent man.”
The CIA declined to comment and referred a reporter to the Justice Department, which did not respond to a request for a comment.
Reach reporter Tia Rinehart at tia.Rinehart@scripps.com or 202-408-1490. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
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