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Former CIA officer indicted for allegedly helping reporter

Jeffrey A. Sterling is charged with illegally disclosing classified material and obstructing justice. He faces up to 50 years in prison if convicted.

January 07, 2011|By Richard A. Serrano, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — A former CIA officer was arrested Thursday on charges of illegally disclosing classified material and obstructing justice after authorities said he assisted a newspaper reporter and book author with information about highly classified covert operations.

Jeffrey A. Sterling, who was terminated by the CIA after nearly nine years and who then sued alleging racial discrimination, was arrested in St. Louis after a federal grand jury indictment was unsealed in Alexandria, Va., charging him with 10 counts, including the "unlawful disclosure of national defense information."

He appeared briefly in federal court in St. Louis, but did not enter a plea. He was taken to jail, pending a detention hearing scheduled for Monday.

Though the indictment does not identify the reporter/author, the details and dates of the allegations match closely with the work of James Risen, who co-wrote a series of New York Times stories about intelligence operations in late 2005 and in January 2006 published the book, "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration."

The disclosures in the newspaper series and book rocked the George W. Bush administration, particularly over allegations that the National Security Agency, with little or no judicial or congressional oversight, had eavesdropped on the phone calls and e-mails of hundreds of Americans, and that the CIA had passed phony nuclear blueprints to Iran in an attempt to confuse the country.

Federal officials, in explaining the indictment, alleged that Sterling leaked the information "in connection with a possible newspaper story to be written by an author employed by a national newspaper … and, later, in connection with a book published by the author in January 2006."

The indictment states that Sterling met with the reporter in February 2002 at his newspaper's Washington bureau. The next month, on March 2, a story by Risen in the New York Times outlined his lawsuit against the CIA.

The Sterling indictment is the latest in a series of Obama administration moves to hold government officials accountable for leaks. Last year, a former high official at the National Security Agency was charged with illegally possessing classified information that wound up with a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. The administration also has accused a U.S. soldier of passing reams of classified cables and other documents to WikiLeaks, and is further exploring the possibility of charging WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Risen, reached by telephone, declined to comment. A Pulitzer Prize winner for the New York Times stories, he twice was subpoenaed to testify and provide documents to the grand jury in Alexandria that was investigating Sterling.

"Jim did not cooperate with the government and he did not testify," said his lawyer, Joel Kurtzberg. "He didn't strike a deal with the government in any way. And, for obvious reasons, he won't and I won't comment on whether or not a particular individual was or was not a confidential source."

Sterling, 43, faces up to 50 years in prison if convicted. He is accused of disclosing the information in retaliation for being discharged from the agency. He was employed by the CIA from May 1993 to January 2002, much of that time assigned to a "classified clandestine operation program designed to conduct intelligence activities related to the weapons capabilities of certain countries."

Sterling, who is a lawyer, signed various agreements never to disclose classified information. But after he was terminated and his discrimination lawsuit against the CIA did not bear fruit, "in retaliation … he engaged in a scheme" to embarrass the CIA, the indictment said.

In his discrimination suit, Sterling claimed he was told by CIA supervisors that he was not eligible for certain positions because he is African American. Instead, he said, he was reassigned to recruit Iranians as spies, and then was fired after turning down another assignment.

richard.serrano@latimes.com

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