The conviction this week of CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling on multiple espionage charges sends yet another chilling message to those with access to information about government abuse, illegality, or threats to public well-being: If you see something, say nothing. It is telling that although Sterling went through appropriate channels in discussing with Senate Intelligence Committee staffers a botched operation targeting Iran’s nuclear program, he is facing possible decades in prison.
Much of the publicity surrounding this case focused on New York Times reporter James Risen, who refused to name his sources for the book State of War in which he wrote about the CIA operation. In the end, Obama’s Justice Department backed down and did not compel Risen to choose between testifying in Sterling’s trial or going to jail. The extended game of brinkmanship the DOJ played with Risen only gave press freedom advocates time and incentive to rally around Risen. It seems that the government made the calculation that sending a high-profile, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist to prison was too politically costly.
No such calculation played into the prosecution of Sterling. The government focused on painting him as a disgruntled, vengeful ex-employee who had been fired in 2002 after suing the CIA for racial discrimination — a personal smear tactic familiar to those who’ve worked with whistleblowers. With no actual evidence presented proving that Sterling was the source of any leak, the case against him was circumstantial: A disturbing fact when one considers not only the sentence Sterling faces, but that leaks by powerful men like David Petreaus are ignored, even though there is abundant evidence to prosecute. Indeed, some have speculated that Sterling’s only “crime” was embarrassing the Agency by revealing to the Senate committee responsible for overseeing the CIA that it had botched an operation.
While press freedom proponents may have won the battle waged for Risen, until that community and others concerned about democratic accountability bring the same energy and resources to bear in protecting whistleblowers like Sterling, they may ultimately lose the war. Who will risk decades in prison to talk to government watchdogs or the media about misdeeds with the specter of cases like Sterling’s (to name just one) hanging over them?
Read the statement about the Sterling conviction issued by the Government Accountability Project, a WIN co-founder.