Ex-CIA Officer Charged With Leak to New York Times Reporter

January 7, 2011 - 9:46 AM

Washington (AP) - A former CIA officer has been indicted on charges of disclosing national security secrets after being accused of leaking classified information about Iran to a New York Times reporter.

Federal prosecutors charged Jeffrey Sterling with 10 counts related to improperly keeping and disclosing national security information.

The indictment did not say specifically what was leaked but, from the dates and other details, it was clear that the case centered on leaks to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Risen for his 2006 book, "State of War." The book revealed details about the CIA's covert spy war with Iran.

Sterling, 43, of O'Fallon, Mo., was arrested Thursday and appeared in federal court in St. Louis 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. There was no plea entered. Another detention hearing was scheduled for Monday afternoon.

Sterling served on the Iranian desk at the CIA and handled Iranian spies who had defected to the United States. In Chapter 9 of the book "A Rogue Operation," Risen detailed how a CIA officer mistakenly revealed the CIA's network in Iran in 2004.

Iranian security officials were able to "roll up" the CIA's agent network in the country. Risen called it an "espionage disaster."

The Justice Department had twice subpoenaed Risen to force him to reveal his sources but he refused to help federal investigators. After the book was published in 2006, the FBI focused on Sterling whom Risen had written about in March 2002 for the newspaper. The article said he was familiar with Iranian operations.

The Dec. 22, 2010, indictment was unsealed Thursday in Alexandria, Va. In response to the charges, Sterling's lawyer, Edward McMahon, said in a statement: "He's innocent and we've always maintained he's innocent throughout this long process. And we'll prove it in court."

Risen's lawyer, Joel Kurtzberg, said he would not discuss whether Sterling was Risen's confidential source. Kurtzberg did say that Risen did not provide investigators with any testimony or documents.

"Mr. Risen did not cooperate with the government in any way in connection with the investigation," Kurtzberg said.

The CIA said in a statement that it "deplores the unauthorized disclosure of classified information."

The New York Times declined to comment.

The indictment is the latest move in an aggressive Obama administration campaign to crack down on leaks, even as the administration has supported proposed legislation that would shield reporters from having to identify their sources.

The administration recently arrested an Army private on charges of leaking a classified 2007 videotape of a helicopter attack in Iraq to the website WikiLeaks and charged a former National Security Agency official with leaking information about NSA mismanagement to The Baltimore Sun.

During the brief hearing in St. Louis, Sterling said little beyond answering yes-or-no questions. He appeared to move with great difficulty and limped as he approached the bench to address the judge. It wasn't clear why he appeared to be in pain.

Sterling told the judge he has a Virginia-based lawyer and didn't know if the attorney would be in St. Louis in time to represent him on Monday.

Sterling worked for the CIA from 1993 to 2002. His final posting was in New York beginning in 2002. According to the indictment, Sterling left the CIA an embittered man.

Sterling, who is black, filed a complaint against the CIA in 2000, claiming racial discrimination and later sued the agency unsuccessfully.  He also submitted his memoirs to the CIA to be published and was extremely unhappy with the review process.

The indictment said Sterling's anger and resentment grew toward the CIA and claimed that he retaliated against the agency by attempting to cause the publication of classified information. The indictment said that government officials warned Risen, identified only as Author A, and his newspaper employer, that Sterling's information could endanger a human asset's life and that in May 2003 the newspaper agreed not to publish it.

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Associated Press writer Christopher Leonard in St. Louis contributed to this report.