Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was convicted on nine counts alleging violation of the Espionage Act; Sterling blew a highly classified Bush-era operation intended to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. He did so to no discernible public good; the crimes of which he now stands convicted are truly heinous.
Here is how reporter Matt Apuzzo describes Sterling’s conviction in the lead paragraph of his page-one New York Times story: “Jeffrey A. Sterling, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, was convicted of espionage Monday on charges that he told a reporter for The New York Times about a secret operation to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program.” The New York Times reporter is James Risen; Sterling’s conviction is based on his disclosures to Risen.
Unlike other highly classified national security programs that Risen has blown, however, Risen was unable to enlist the assistance of the Times in publishing the details of this particular program. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared to testify at trial; she had succeeded in persuading Times editors that publication of Risen’s story would do great harm to the national security of the United States.
The Times passed on the story. Risen accordingly saved it for his book State of War, whose publisher lacked the Times’s compunctions in this case. Apuzzo’s story on Sterling’s conviction omits this illuminating context.
James Risen was the key to Sterling’s guilty acts. Sterling was induced to disclose the classified information regarding the operation against Iran’s nuclear program with Risen’s promise of confidentiality as to the source.
The obligation to provide testimony to matters within his personal knowledge in criminal cases applies to James Risen as it does to other citizens. Eric Holder’s Department of Justice nevertheless abandoned its efforts to secure Risen’s testimony against Sterling.
Without Risen’s testimony, the government’s case against Sterling was circumstantial in crucial parts. Not surprisingly, before the jury returned with the convictions against Sterling yesterday, by the way, it had reported to the judge that it was deadlocked on several counts.
While Risen is subject to the same testimonial obligations as other citizens, he is also subject to the same criminal liability under the Espionage Act as Jeffrey Sterling and others. Neither he nor his colleagues at the Times are cloaked in immunity for violation of the espionage laws of the United States.
Risen has been charged with no offense; he has even skated on his noncompliance with the subpoena for his testimony in Sterling’s case. Jeffrey Sterling is headed for prison; James Risen remains at large.
NOTE: I wrote about the legal issues in the Times’s publication of national security information protected under the Espionage Act in the Weekly Standard column “Exposure,” but Gabriel Schoenfeld owns this story. For a full understanding of what Risen has wrought here I urge interested readers to read Schoenfeld’s Weekly Standard articles “Not every leak is fit to print” (2008), “What gives?” (2010), and “A privileged press?” (2014) as well as Schoenfeld’s Power Line post “A Risen in the sun.”