Jeffrey Alexander Sterling

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Jeffrey A. Sterling
Sterling Photo.jpg
Alma materWashington University School of Law, 1992
Millikin University, 1989
OccupationFraud investigator (2004--his arrest in 2011)[2]
Lawyer (?--present)
Former undercover CIA officer (May 14, 1993--January 31, 2002)
Known forWhistleblower
SpouseHolly Sterling[3]

Jeffrey Alexander Sterling is an American lawyer and former CIA employee who was arrested, charged, and convicted of violating the Espionage Act for revealing details about Operation Merlin (covert operation to supply Iran with flawed nuclear warhead blueprints) to journalist James Risen.[2][4][5] The case was based on what the judge called "very powerful circumstantial evidence."[6] In May 2015, Sterling was sentenced to 3½ years in prison.[7] In 2016 and 2017, he filed complaints and wrote letters regarding mistreatment, lack of medical treatment for life-threatening conditions, and false allegations against him by corrections officers leading to further punitive measures.[8] He was released from prison in January 2018. [9]

Early life and education[edit]

Sterling was born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.[1] Sterling earned a political science degree at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, in 1989. In 1992, he graduated from the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, Missouri as a Juris Doctor.[10]

CIA employment[edit]

Sterling joined the CIA on May 14, 1993. In 1995, he was promoted to operations officer in the Iran group of the CIA's Near East and South Asia division. He held a top secret security clearance and had access to sensitive compartmented information, including classified cables, CIA spies, and operations.[citation needed]

After training in Persian in 1997, he was sent first to Bonn, Germany, and two years later to New York City to recruit Iranian nationals as agents for the CIA as part of a secret intelligence operation involving Iran's weapons capabilities.[11] From early 1998 to May 2000, Sterling assumed responsibility as case officer for a Russian emigre with an engineering background in nuclear physics and production, whom the CIA employed as a carrier to pass flawed design plans to the Iranians.[12][non-primary source needed]

In April 2000, Sterling filed a complaint with the CIA's Equal Employment Office about management's alleged racial discrimination practices. The CIA subsequently revoked Sterling's authorization to receive or possess classified documents concerning the secret operation and placed him on administrative leave in March 2001.[13][14]

After the failure of two settlement attempts, his contract with the CIA was terminated on January 31, 2002.[15][non-primary source needed]

Equal Employment lawsuit[edit]

Sterling's lawsuit accusing CIA officials of racial discrimination was forced to be dismissed by invoking the state secrets privilege. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal, ruling in 2005 that "there is no way for Sterling to prove employment discrimination without exposing at least some classified details of the covert employment that gives context to his claim."[16][17][18][19]

Conviction under the Espionage Act[edit]

FCI Englewood, where Sterling was located

Between 2002 and 2004, the U.S. federal government intercepted several interstate emails to and from Sterling, which were "(...) routed through a server located in the Eastern District of Virginia (...)". The authorities also traced telephone calls between Sterling and[5]—the journalist and book author James Risen. In the intercepted communications, Sterling is alleged to have revealed national defense information to an unauthorized person.[15] In March 2003 Sterling also raised concerns with the Senate Intelligence Committee about a "poorly executed and dangerous Operation Merlin."[20]

On December 22, 2010, U.S. attorney Neil H. MacBride filed an indictment against Sterling on the unlawful retention and unauthorized disclosure of national defense information, mail fraud, unauthorized conveyance of government property, and obstruction of justice. Sterling was arrested on January 6, 2011.[15] Sterling became the fifth individual in the history of the United States who has been charged, under the Espionage Act, with mishandling national defense information.[10][21][22]

In a hearing at the U.S. District Court on January 14, 2011, Sterling's defense attorney, Edward MacMahon, entered a not guilty plea.[23][24] MacMahon reported to the court that he was still waiting for clearance to discuss the case in detail with his client.[25] Rather than relying exclusively on records of electronic communications to legally establish that Sterling exchanged information with Risen,[26] the prosecution has subpoenaed Risen to testify and reveal his journalistic sources,[27] an effort which Risen and his attorneys contested.[28][29]

Sterling, who maintains that his communications with Risen did not involve secret information, was convicted of espionage charges on January 26, 2015. Sentencing was originally scheduled for April 24,[30] but after learning of the sentence of no more than two years’ probation plus a fine given one day earlier to David Petraeus for the misdemeanor of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material, Sterling's lawyers submitted a plea that Sterling "not receive a different form of justice" than Petraeus, asking for a similarly lenient sentence instead of the 19 to 24 years imprisonment sought by the federal prosecutors.[31] On May 11, 2015, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema sentenced Sterling to 3½ years in prison. Judge Brinkema said there was "no more critical secret" than revealing the identity of a man working with the CIA, and that Sterling deserved a harsher penalty than other recent leakers because he had not pleaded guilty or admitted wrongdoing. The judge said she was moved by his accomplishments but needed to send a message to others: "If you do knowingly reveal these secrets, there's going to be a price to be paid."[7] On June 22, 2017, a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the sentence.[32]

Sterling was incarcerated at FCI Englewood. In 2016, Sterling's wife said that she was afraid that Sterling could die of health issues behind bars.[33] In September 2016, Sterling detailed the FBI's continued indifference in his seeking treatment for a severe heart condition, in letters which were published by Common Dreams.[34] In April 2017 Sterling was placed into solitary confinement after he allegedly threatened an officer.[8] He was "denied medication for his heart condition and endured a cardiac-related episode" while in solitary confinement.[8]

Personal life[edit]

Sterling is married to Holly Sterling, a social worker. They met via On their second date, they agreed to get married barefoot on the beach. They were married in Jamaica.[35][36]


Sterling earned a national 2010 Anti-Fraud Award from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association for helping break up a Medicare fraud ring, leading to estimated recoveries and savings of US$32 million.[10][37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Ex-CIA agent insists on innocence while his national security case is stuck in limbo". St. Louis Beacon. June 7, 2013. Archived from the original on July 20, 2013. Retrieved January 5, 2015. Jeffrey Sterling, born into a family of seven in Cape Girardeau, seemed to have made it. A top graduate of Millikin University and Washington University Law School, he then went to work as one of the few African-American CIA agents.
  2. ^ a b Chad Garrison (January 7, 2011). "Jeffrey Sterling: Indictment States Ex-Spy in Missouri Had Grudge with CIA, Leaked Secrets". The Riverfront Times blog. Archived from the original on January 6, 2015. Retrieved January 5, 2015. Jeffrey Sterling, a 43-year-old resident of O'Fallon, Missouri, who now works as a fraud investigator with the health benefits company WellPoint, was arraigned yesterday in federal court in St. Louis accused of leaking state secrets to the media.
  3. ^ "Defendant's Opposition to Government's Motion for Pretrial Detention" (PDF). Politico. January 21, 2011. Retrieved January 5, 2015. He has no criminal record whatsoever and is married to his wife Holly, who is a social worker. He lives modestly outside of Saint Louis, Missouri in O’Fallon. He owns his own home with his wife though it is mortgaged. Mr. Sterling is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis earning his JD in 1992.
  4. ^ Todd C. Frankel (January 23, 2011). "Life away from CIA still tangled, lonely for indicted ex-spy". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Retrieved January 5, 2015.
  5. ^ a b Isikoff, Michael (2011-01-06). "Ex-CIA Officer Charged with Leak to Reporter". NBC New York. Retrieved 2011-01-07.
  6. ^ Maass, Peter (18 June 2015). "How Jeffrey Sterling Took on the CIA — and Lost Everything". The Intercept. Retrieved 2017-05-29.
  7. ^ a b Matt Zapotosky (May 11, 2015). "Ex-CIA officer convicted in leak case sentenced to 3½ years in prison". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 11, 2015.
  8. ^ a b c "Imprisoned Whistleblower 'Feared For His Life' After Threats From Guard". Shadowproof. 2017-04-29. Retrieved 2017-05-29.
  9. ^ Maass, Peter (January 19, 2018). "Jeffrey Sterling, Convicted of Leaking About Botched CIA Program, Has Been Released From Prison". The Intercept. Retrieved 2022-08-14.
  10. ^ a b c Todd C. Frankel (23 January 2011). "Life away from CIA still tangled, lonely for indicted ex-spy".
  11. ^ Risen, James (2002-03-02). "Fired by C.I.A., He Says Agency Practiced Bias". New York Times. Retrieved 2011-09-08.
  12. ^ "USA v. Sterling 10 CIA Exhibits on Merlin Ruse" (PDF). Central Intelligence Agency. 2015-01-14. Retrieved 2015-05-12.
  13. ^ Fields-Meyer, Thomas (2002-05-20). "Out in the Cold: Agent Jeffrey Sterling Charges the CIA with Racial Discrimination". People. Retrieved 2011-01-11.
  14. ^ "Former CIA Officer Arrested for Alleged Unauthorized Disclosure of National Defense Information and Obstruction of Justice". Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2011-01-06. Archived from the original on 2011-01-08. Retrieved 2011-01-08.
  15. ^ a b c MacBride, Neil H. (2010-12-22). "United States of America v. Jeffrey Alexander Sterling, Defendant". In the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division. Retrieved 2011-01-07.
  16. ^ Northam, Jackie (2005-09-09). "Administration Employing State Secrets Privilege at Quick Clip". NPR. Retrieved 2011-01-17.
  17. ^ "Supreme Court bars appeal of ex-CIA agent: African American former covert officer charged agency with bias". NBC News. 2006-01-09. Retrieved 2011-01-11.
  18. ^ "The CIA and control of 'insider tales'". ABC Radio National. 2006-04-25. Retrieved 2011-01-17.
  19. ^ Taylor Jr., Stuart (2008-04-12). "Reforming the State Secrets Privilege". National Journal. Archived from the original on 2012-03-09. Retrieved 2011-01-17.
  20. ^ Solomon, Norman (2015-01-27). "The Invisible Man: Jeffrey Sterling, CIA Whistleblower". Retrieved 2011-05-12.
  21. ^ Shane, Scott (2010-04-16). "Former N.S.A. Official Is Charged in Leaks Case". New York Times. Retrieved 2011-01-09.
  22. ^ Scott Shane (11 June 2010). "Obama Takes a Hard Line Against Leaks to Press". The New York Times.
  23. ^ Cratty, Carol (2011-01-14). "Ex-CIA officer pleads not guilty in classified info case". CNN. Archived from the original on 2012-02-27. Retrieved 2011-01-17.
  24. ^ Isikoff, Michael (2011-02-25). "DOJ gets reporter's phone, credit card records in leak probe". NBC News.
  25. ^ "Ex-CIA officer pleads not guilty to leaking info". Forbes. 2011-01-14. Retrieved 2011-01-17.[dead link]
  26. ^ Liptak, Adam (February 11, 2012). "A High-Tech War on Leaks". New York Times. Retrieved April 4, 2013.
  27. ^ Savage, Charlie (April 28, 2010). "U.S. Subpoenas Times Reporter Over Book on C.I.A." New York Times. Retrieved April 9, 2013.
  28. ^ Aftergood, Steven (February 29, 2012). "There is No Reporter's Privilege, Leak Prosecutors Insist". Federation of American Scientists Secrecy news. Retrieved April 4, 2013.
  29. ^ Affidavit of James Risen, June 21, 2011 (with exhibits and attachments), Federation of American Scientists, Sterling case files
  30. ^ Apuzzo, Matt (January 26, 2015). "C.I.A. Officer in Leak Case, Jeffrey Sterling, Is Convicted of Espionage". The New York Times. Retrieved January 26, 2015.
  31. ^ Peter Maass (April 24, 2015). "Petraeus Gets Leniency for Leaking — and Risen's CIA Source should too, his Lawyers say". The Intercept. Retrieved April 26, 2015.
  32. ^ "Imprisoned ex-CIA officer loses appeal of leak conviction". AP NEWS. 2017-06-22. Retrieved 2022-08-14.
  33. ^ Hutchins, Corey (2016-08-16). "'My husband may die' in a Colorado prison, says wife of CIA whistleblower". Colorado Independent. Retrieved 2016-08-21.
  34. ^ "Letter From CIA Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling Details Federal Prison's Scandalous Treatment". Common Dreams. Retrieved 2017-05-29.
  35. ^
  36. ^
  37. ^ Byron Hollis, Esq, CFE, AHFI (2010). "2010 Anti-Fraud Awards - Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia - Winning program: Medicare Advantage Private Fee for Service Fraud Scheme" (PDF). BlueCross BlueShield Association. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-27.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)

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