When Jeffrey Sterling was in his last year of law school, he was drawn to a newspaper ad that announced the promise of travel while serving the country as an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency. Part of a family of military service members, Sterling dreamed that the CIA would allow him to give back to the United States. Little did he know that his employment at the agency, which began in 1993 and ended in 2001, would turn into a nightmare of racial discrimination and persecution that would last decades.
Early in his career at the CIA, Sterling began to sense that he was treated differently because of his skin tone, a fact highlighted to him when he was pulled from an assignment in Germany with the explanation that “a black man speaking Farsi” would seem conspicuous. Sterling says this is just one example of the many ways his spy agency career was held back because of his race. Years of mistreatment led him to become the first African-American to file a racial discrimination suit against the CIA, an act of bravery the U.S. government would make him pay dearly for.
When, after the 9/11 attacks, Sterling felt inspired to help the agency tackle terrorism, he offered to drop his suit. Instead of enthusiasm for his dedication, he was met with a dismissal. As one of his colleagues put it, quoting a song by the late Jim Croce, he had “tugged on Superman’s cape.” The Intercept’s Peter Maass explains the ways in which Sterling’s heroism got under the CIA’s skin in a thorough piece about the whistleblower’s ordeal, “How Jeffrey Sterling Took On the CIA—and Lost Everything.”
In 2001, as he was leaving the agency, he filed a federal lawsuit that said the CIA retaliated against him for making an internal discrimination complaint, and that he had indeed faced a pattern of discrimination there. The suit was dismissed by a judge after the CIA successfully argued in pre-trial motions that a trial would expose state secrets by disclosing sources and methods of intelligence-gathering. An appeals court upheld that ruling, though it noted that the dismissal “places, on behalf of the entire country, a burden on Sterling that he alone must bear” by being deprived of his right to a trial. The dismissal spared Sterling’s supervisors from testifying about their interactions with him. The government has not provided specific responses, in court or to the media, about his accusations of racial discrimination, other than to generally state that he faced none.
He tugged on the CIA’s cape in other ways. He wrote a memoir, tentatively titled Spook: An American Journey Through Black and White, and submitted chapters for pre-publication review. According to a lawsuit Sterling filed in 2003, the CIA determined that his manuscript contained classified information that should not be published, and demanded that he add information that, his suit said, was “blatantly false.” Facing a tough legal battle with a presiding judge who seemed sympathetic to the CIA, Sterling eventually agreed to drop the suit. His manuscript has not been published.
Also in 2003, Sterling met staffers from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to let them know his concerns about the mismanagement of a classified program he worked on at the agency. Merlin, as the program was called, involved the CIA giving Iran faulty nuclear blueprints. If the blueprints were used, Iran’s nuclear program would be delayed. The blueprints were given to the Iranians by a Russian scientist who lived in the United States, and Sterling was his CIA handler. The CIA has said the program worked well, but Sterling told the committee staffers it was botched and that the Iranians learned the blueprints were flawed; the Iranians might have gained nuclear insights from the accurate parts.
After his career at the agency was terminated, he struggled to find employment for years, during which he ended up selling his belongings and sleeping in his car until he was able to work for friends as a “manny.” Against all odds, Sterling was eventually able to rebuild his life, working in health insurance and marrying Holly, a social worker.
Sterling had begun to feel that his chapter with the CIA was finally behind him when the book “State of War,” by New York Times journalist James Risen, was published in 2006. It included a chapter detailing the very program that Sterling had denounced to the Senate. The former CIA agent then became an FBI target—agents tried to search his home and interrogated him and his wife. And yet, after this intrusion, four years passed in torturous waiting until the U.S. government again decided to persecute Sterling, this time under the draconian Espionage Act, which the Obama administration has mercilessly used to suppress more whistleblowers than have all other presidential administrations combined.
Sterling became another “first” in our nation’s history books when, despite entirely circumstantial evidence tying him to Risen, he became the first person to be convicted under the Espionage Act. The whistleblower was convicted of nine felony counts in a trial in Virginia, proceedings which investigative reporter Marcy Wheeler told The Real News Network had a number of shortcomings, including the facts that the jury did not include a single black person, the trial took place in the CIA’s “backyard” and, while some crucial evidence was withheld, other evidence was introduced without proper procedures being followed.