(AP) A former CIA officer convicted of leaking classified details of an operation to stall Iran’s nuclear program should have his convictions tossed, in part because prosecutors improperly introduced evidence that the man had mishandled other classified material, an attorney told a federal appeals court Tuesday.
Ex-CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling is seeking relief from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after being sentenced last year to 3 1/2 years in prison under charges that he divulged details of a CIA mission to New York Times journalist James Risen.
William Trunk, an attorney for Sterling, told the court Tuesday that prosecutors should not have been allowed to show jurors classified documents found at Sterling’s home because they weren’t relevant to the case.
Prosecutors made a “spectacle” out of the documents in front of the jury in an attempt to disparage Sterling’s character, Trunk said. More than once during trial, Sterling was described by prosecutors as “a man who keeps CIA documents at his home.”
“Those remarks drove the dagger home,” Trunk said.
Sterling was convicted under the Espionage Act of exposing a plan to stall Iranian ambitions to build a nuclear weapon. The operation, described in Risen’s 2006 book “State of War,” involved using a CIA agent nicknamed “Merlin” to deliver flawed nuclear blueprints to Iran in the hopes that they would spend years trying to develop a product that would never work.
After spending years trying to force the reporter to reveal his source, and despite the 4th Circuit’s order compelling him to testify, which the Supreme Court declined to question, Risen was never directly asked in court whether Sterling was his leaker.
In the end, the government didn’t have to: prosecutors obtained enough circumstantial evidence by seizing their emails and phone messages to win a conviction. The government did not have recorded phone calls or emails showing the actual exchange of classified information, but prosecutor Eric Olshan pointed Tuesday to an email Risen wrote Sterling in 2004, which said “I want to call today. I’m trying to write the story … I need your phone number again.”
Chief Judge Gregory pressed Olshan to point to any evidence that classified information was actually divulged in that exchange. Gregory noted that not everything in Risen’s book was classified, and that its possible Sterling was simply sharing information that wasn’t secret.
“That’s inference on top of inference,” Gregory said, to suggest that just because Sterling and Risen were communicating, Sterling was also leaking classified information.
The prosecutor said the other classified documents found at Sterling’s home were properly admitted as evidence because they showed a pattern of similar conduct.
He reiterated a key accusation against Sterling from the trial — that he provided the information to Risen in retaliation for multiple grievances he had against the agency. Sterling was upset that the CIA had blocked him from putting certain information in his memoir, Olshan said, and as an African-American, had unsuccessfully sued the agency for racial discrimination.
“Mr. Sterling’s motive was to harm the CIA and do it in a way that had maximum exposure,” Olshan said.
Sterling’s attorneys also argued that his convictions should be overturned because prosecutors never proved that the transfer of a key document actually took place in the Eastern District of Virginia, where the case was tried.
Olshan countered case was properly tried in Virginia because Sterling lived in the state, so the transfer began there in any event.
The 4th Circuit is expected to rule in the coming weeks.