Yves here. I’m featuring this Real News Network report, which may seem to be harrow for our non-financial coverage, for two reasons. First, the interview is with Marcy Wheeler. I suspect many readers know and admire her work but have not seen her speak. Second, her talk flags a particularly disturbing element of the government’s successful case against CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling, namely, that it was weak and depended almost entirely on circumstantial metadata evidence. That should give consumers pause about their casual attitude towards the government’s data hoovering: “Oh, there’s nothing they can see that is of interest.” As this story indicates, the officialdom was able to use inconclusive information as the basis of a narrative that worked in court.
If you think this will never happen to you, think twice. Consider the story a few days ago in the New York Times about a Chinese employee of the National Weather Service who had her life turned upside down, and porbably ruined. She was arrested, accused of being a Chinese spy, and had her case suddenly dropped a week before it was scheduled to go to trial. Merely knowing or meeting with the wrong people can get you caught in the surveillance state dragnet.
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
On Monday, former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was sentence to three and a half years in prison. Sterling, if you remember, was convicted of espionage back in January on charges that he leaked information to New York Times journalist James Risen. That information revealed a CIA operation to provide flawed nuclear plans to Iran. The Obama administration used the Espionage Act to go after Sterling. This administration has used the Espionage Act to go after more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined.
With us to discuss Sterling’s sentence is investigative reporter Marcy Wheeler. She’s the author of Anatomy of Deceit: How the Bush Administration Used the Media to Sell the Iraq War and Out a Spy. She joins us now from Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Thanks for joining us, Marcy.
MARCY WHEELER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Thanks for having me.
DESVARIEUX: So Marcy, let’s first talk about the verdict. Sterling’s getting three and a half years. Former CIA director David Petraeus also disclosed classified information to his biographer and former lover, and he received a sentence of two years probation, and $100,000 fine. What do you make of Sterling’s sentence?
WHEELER: Well, as compared to Petraeus it’s outrageous, because Petraeus leaked far more information and far more damaging information to his mistress. Compared to what the government wanted to sentence Sterling to, which would have been 19 to 24 years, it’s a much smaller sentence. And so it’s, I think, good for that perspective, compared to the evidence that was used against Sterling in trial. It’s a really weak case. It was mostly circumstantial. In fact, I can guarantee you the government had far, far better evidence against Petraeus than they did against Sterling.
So you know, it’s sort of a–I’m glad for Sterling that he’s not going to lose the rest of his life, which is what the government really wanted to happen. But there still are many problems with the government’s inconsistencies about how it treats espionage. What it calls espionage, which is really just leaking.
DESVARIEUX: All right. Let’s talk a little bit more about the evidence and the facts behind the case. How much evidence did the government have actually against Sterling?
WHEELER: It was really flimsy. It was almost all metadata. You know, when they say, oh, don’t worry about these surveillance programs because it’s just metadata. What they had against Sterling was call records of him speaking to Risen just for something like four and a half minutes before Risen tried to publish his first New York Times story. And then some longer conversations in 2004 and 2005. But they didn’t have any content. I mean, the only tiny piece of content they had that implicated this at all was Sterling emailing Risen with a link to an unclassified CNN story on Iran and nukes. But it didn’t have any classified information in it. So there was no evidence that he actually passed on the information.
And then the government kind of bootstrapped claims that Sterling had a letter that was shared with Merlin, the Russian who dealt these nuclear blueprints to Iran. And their evidence there was even flimsier. I mean, they said look, we found these three documents that weren’t originally classified secret but we now say are secret when we searched his house in Missouri, and therefore we assume he had an entirely different, far more classified document at some point in Virginia. It was kind of a, really kind of crazy argument. But the jury bought it.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. You’ve mentioned that the evidence was flimsy. I mean, I’m a journalist, and I’m thinking to myself, if I go to a potential source and ask them, you know, they ask me for anonymity. I could imagine that they are going to be very, very hesitant to reveal any sort of information to me, especially if it’s potentially classified information. So speak to the significance of this case for journalists, and even democracy.
WHEELER: Well, one of my biggest concerns is I think it is very possible that Sterling said to Risen, go figure out what I was working on in 2000, because there’s a story there. And said nothing more. I mean, Risen had already written books about Russian spying, right? So these, this story was right up Risen’s alley. And he could’ve–you know, the notion that Risen couldn’t put together a bunch of sources on this story is just farcical. And that happens all the time in DC, right? A source says there’s a story here, go find it, and doesn’t actually provide any classified information. Sure there will be phone records of the person saying, you know, go find this story. But that doesn’t mean he shared any secrets, and the government doesn’t have any evidence that he shared any secrets.
The government–the FBI, at the beginning of this investigation, believed that the story had come from a Senate staffer who Sterling had correctly gone to to raise concerns about the operation in 2003. And so it is problematic that a tactic that people use to get journalists to chase a story–and that’s all that we have against Sterling–that that could become criminalized. The government wanted, remember, the government wanted to send Sterling to prison for 24 years for that.
DESVARIEUX: Wow. And for democracy? There’s no free press, what do we have left?
WHEELER: Right. And you know, the government keeps claiming that they proved at trial that this was not a botched operation. That’s not what the trial evidence showed. The trial evidence showed that there were two Russians involved on the program and both had concerns. The trial evidence showed that Sterling, when he saw the Russian get the nuclear blueprints and respond to them, immediately freaked out because the Russian freaked out. Sterling was told to shut up at that meeting. And the Russian who did drop off the blueprints with Iran did a bunch of crazy things. Like, he didn’t give Iran any way to contact the CIA, which was the entire point of the operation.
And so Sterling had really good reason to be concerned about that operation. And if he did provide that story to Risen–I don’t think, I don’t think the evidence is all that sound. But if he did, there was good reason to be concerned about it, especially in 2003 when this story first got told, because we were starting a war with Iraq on trumped-up evidence.
DESVARIEUX: All right, Marcy. I’m going to present to you the counterargument. Of course, the government claims that they have to be hard-nosed on espionage because at the end of the day it’s about public safety. These are people that sign up for this work. They know the terms and agreements to taking on this work. What do you make of that argument?
WHEELER: David Petraeus. I mean, that argument might make sense if David Petraeus were going to prison for ten years. But if David–I mean, once you give, once you agree to give David Petraeus a hand slap–I mean, Petraeus, he’s on probation. He doesn’t even have to give up his guns, he can travel outside of the country. Once you do that for far more classified information, and even–I mean, leak aside, and the government likes to pretend that Petraeus didn’t share any classified information with his girlfriend. But there’s good reason to believe that it was an underlying background source for her.
But even just storing this information in an unlocked desk drawer is crazy. And that’s why we have laws against that, and to not punish Petraeus, really, at all–I think he got fined 75 percent of a speaking fee. So once you’ve done that, then you’ve undermined the argument, that argument, the counterargument that you’re making, forever. Because he gave, he was sharing far more sensitive secrets than Sterling. And so obviously you’re not all that serious about it. You’re only serious about secrets when it’s a whistleblower sharing them.
DESVARIEUX: All right. Marcy Wheeler, thank you so much for joining us.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.