Jeffrey Sterling: “I witnessed the obsession with Iran in the CIA. Assange? No chance he will receive a fair trial and humane treatment in the US”

Jeffrey Sterling was attempting to serve his country working in the shadowy world of the CIA under cover operations, until he blew the whistle on a botched operation against Iran and paid an immense price. Il Fatto Quotidiano interviews Sterling, on the risk of a war with Iran, the CIA, the Espionage Act and Julian Assange

20 Aprile 2024

He was one of the very few black undercover operatives working for the CIA, assigned to the Iran Task Force. In 2002, the CIA fired him after he filed a complaint against the agency for racial discrimination. Jeffrey Sterling has become a vigorous supporter of whistleblowers charged under the Espionage Act for exposing crimes and abuses committed by intelligence services, and a vocal supporter of Julian Assange.

In 2011, he was arrested and charged with Espionage Act violations, accused of having leaked classified information to an American journalist working for the New York Times, Pulitzer Prize winner James Risen. Although the U.S. authorities were unable to bring any incriminating evidence proving that he was the leaker, and although he has always professed his innocence, he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. Jeffrey Sterling was released from prison after serving more than two years of his sentence. Il Fatto Quotidiano sat down for an interview with Mr. Sterling, who is in Italy for the International Journalism Festival.

You were charged under the Espionage Act, accused of having leaked information about a CIA operation in Iran, called Operation Merlin. Could you please tell us what Operation Merlin was?

Operation Merlin was designed to slow down the Iranian nuclear weapons program through flawed plans for a nuclear weapon. The plans were ‘rigged’ at one of the national labs, and the flaws were supposed to be undetectable. The thought was that the Iranians would use the plans and not know how to fix them, thereby slowing down their aspirations for a nuclear weapon. I was told that the operation was approved at the highest level of government, and given assurances that the flaws would never be detected.

My job was to train a former Russian nuclear scientist on how to find the right Iranians and, once found, how to get the plans to them. When he was first introduced to the plans, he immediately identified the flaws. My immediate thought was, if he was able to detect the flaws, so would the Iranians. So, instead of hanging their nuclear weapons program, we would actually be helping it go faster.

I took my concerns to every level within the CIA and was told to shut up. I took my concerns to Congress as well. Once I started talking about the dangerous operation, the discrimination I faced intensified. I was removed from Operation Merlin and eventually fired.

In 2003, you contacted the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to alert them on Operation Merlin. What were your concerns? As a whistleblower who talked to the Committee, do you think the democratic oversight on the intelligence community is at all effective?

I was concerned that Operation Merlin would help the Iranian nuclear program. There was also the concern that the plans could be used to create a ‘dirty’ bomb. The US had launched the first invasion of Iraq and our soldiers being potentially open to a dirty bomb attack was a concern of mine; they may not have known what they were getting into because those plans could have ended up with anyone. In addition, I let the Senate know that there was also the possibility of the plans being planted in Iraq and used as false evidence of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program.

As a whistleblower, I gained first-hand experience that there is no democratic oversight on the intelligence community. As discussed during my trial, the staffers I spoke with about Operation Merlin did not notify the committee members, they immediately notified the CIA on what I had done. Both the House and Senate intelligence committees are staffed with intelligence community personnel which operates as a direct line back to those agencies. Instead of oversight and an avenue to take concerns, the committees are ways to identify whistleblowers and target them for retaliation.

Iran has remained an obsession for the CIA since 1979, and under Trump and his hardliners, like former CIA head Mike Pompeo, Iranian general Soleimani was killed and the former head of the CIA Counterterrorism Center, Mike D’Andrea – known as The Undertaker – was named head of the CIA’s operations in Iran. Do you expect a war against Iran, if the hardliners are back?

I witnessed the obsession with Iran in the CIA. When I joined, there were still officers there who were either held as hostage or had friends or family members who had been. 1979 in Iran was an embarrassment for the CIA and they have never forgotten it. I thought the obsession was misguided, as it would never allow for anything other than animosity with Iran; peace would never be a possibility.

So the cat-and-mouse game with Iran had continued, but usually calmer heads prevailed. But the hardliners are becoming louder because of the same ideology that prevented the CIA from being effective against Iran. There was a sort of arrogance at the CIA about Iran which I think was also rooted in racism. Iranians were routinely referred to as ‘ragheads’ with no real intelligence. Instead of trying to understand Iranians, the CIA and the intelligence community use their bigotry to keep Iran as the enemy. The hardliners want war with Iran because that maintains the old grudges.

But, despite the view of Iran when I was at the CIA, we also understood that Iran had a very capable military, and that a war with Iran would be very costly. There was a definite apprehension about war with Iran; our intelligence on Iran then, and I expect still, is very limited. I think the view was if we went to war with Iran, it would not be because of our own actions and ambitions. It would be because of an escalation outside of the direct US/Iran tension. If hardliners come to power I do think the rhetoric about attacking Iran will increase, but I think even the hardliners would have a difficult time initiating a war with Iran.

You were charged with Espionage Act violations in the Eastern District of Virginia, the court in the same state where the CIA and Pentagon have their headquarters and which investigates some of the most high-profile terrorism and national security cases. It is the very same court where Julian Assange faces trial for alleged Espionage Act violations. The U.S. authorities maintain that, if extradited to the United States and put on trial, Assange will get a fair trial and humane treatment: he need not fear the truth and a trial, because he will be able to defend himself. Based on your experience, is there any chance for the WikiLeaks founder to get a fair trial and humane treatment?

There is absolutely no chance for a fair trial for Assange and he will receive no humane treatment. First, on a fair trial – it is literally impossible for anyone to defend against being charged with the Espionage Act. It is a strict liability law, which means that you are assumed guilty once charged. Truth is no defense, in fact, any defense related to the truth will be prohibited. In addition, Assange will not have access to any of the so-called ‘evidence’ used against him. And to make it even more difficult, the government doesn’t have to show the alleged harm. It is a law and prosecution in which the government says what it wants. It is a ‘because we say so’ law, not to be questioned, not to be challenged.

Any trial will be held in the Eastern District of Virginia, the backyard of the intelligence community. Having a trial there is to the complete benefit of the government. During my trial, virtually every member of the jury pool had some connection with the intelligence community, either as a current or former employee, or had friends or relatives who worked there. That connection automatically makes them biased against defendants, especially if intelligence is involved. Any jury that will sit in judgement of Assange will see no position other than what the government has to say about Assange.

I must also connect on the latest development with the UK court wanting assurances that Assange will have the same rights as US citizens being charged with violating the Espionage Act. The are no constitutional rights when it comes to the Espionage Act. Any such guarantees by the US will be false. No US citizen can rely on the protections of constitutional rights when it comes to being tried under the Espionage Act. More directly, the First Amendment is irrelevant and cannot be asserted for defense.

Second, on humane treatment – It seems that everyone in the world knows that US prisons are horrific places, except for the US and UK governments. From the moment he is placed in a US jail or prison, he will lose his humanity. US prison are designed to punish and break people, there is no compassion, no humanity. US prisons are little more than human warehouses where people are treated like inventory.

One of the biggest falsehoods revealed during some of the extradition proceedings was that Assange would receive mental health care. Nothing could be further from the truth. US prisons are designed to break you mentally. Paying attention and attending to the mental health needs of inmates is contrary to that philosophy. As an example, when I was having a tough time in prison, I was told to speak with a counselor. The counselor was completely dismissive of me and actually angry that I was waSting her time. Not wanting to be ignored and seeing no help coming from her, I decided I didn’t want to talk to her anymore. Her response was that unless I talked to her, she was going to put me in solitary confinement. Her answer to my mental health woes was to place me in a situation that would only make it worse.

Healthcare is just as horrible. I had a pretty severe episode with my heart while in prison. Their suggestion to me was to drink more water. It took the efforts of my wife and supporters who bombarded the prison with phone calls and emails demanding that I receive proper medical care. Eventually, a US Senator made inquiries. It took extraordinary pressure for me just to receive medical care, and that will be the same for Assange, if not worse. Life is worthless in US prisons.

If the U.S. authorities embark on a path of war against Iran, do you expect new whistleblowers to step out of the darkness of state secrecy to alert the public and try to avert a new war, or do you think that dozens of Espionage Act prosecutions, from Manning to Snowden, from you to Julian Assange, have created a climate of intimidation?

If war with Iran were to happen, I do think there will be whistleblowers who will come forward. And I believe that despite how the Espionage Act has been used. It has not been used to fight espionage, it is being used against whistleblowers and Assange to keep everyone ignorant of government wrongdoings and illegalities. Every whistleblower prosecution is a warning to anyone who dares to tell the truth. But, even after years of persecuting intelligence and military community employees who revealed government crimes, whistleblowers will continue to come forward”.

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