Crime and CIA Embarrassments

Exclusive: Ex-CIA official Jeffrey Sterling is going on trial for espionage because he allegedly told a reporter about a botched covert op that sent flawed nuclear designs to Iran, but powerful people want to spare ex-CIA Director David Petraeus indictment for leaking secrets to a mistress, notes ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern

I confess to being naive. From what I had read about “Operation Merlin,” a harebrained scheme to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, I was convinced that the CIA would be determined to avoid calling more attention to it. Or, by extension, to author James Risen’s continuing revelations in his new book Pay Any Price”  of unconscionable incompetence by our intrepid spies. “Merlin” was exposed in an earlier Risen book, State of War.

How wrong I was! The decision by the CIA and hired hands at the Justice Department to prosecute former CIA official Jeffrey Sterling reflects, rather, a clear determination to give priority to deterring potential whistleblowers privy to information extremely embarrassing to the government. I repeat, embarrassing to the government, not detrimental to the national security. 

Gen. David Petraeus in a photo with his biographer/mistress Paula Broadwell. (U.S. government photo)

Gen. David Petraeus in a photo with his biographer/mistress Paula Broadwell. (U.S. government photo)

As for risk of extreme embarrassment once U.S. citizens got additional insight into the dumb schemes of amateur intelligence operators, the government presumably thinks it can depend on mainstream media to treat bungling by our sophomore spies “with discretion.”

In short, the prosecution of Jeffrey Sterling seems to have little to do with exposing secrets, but everything to do with hiding the kind of gross misfeasance that truth be told does constitute a real and present danger to our national security.

Similarly, one might think the government would be embarrassed when it became more widely known that Jeffrey Sterling did go to Senate Intelligence Committee staffers to tell them of this unconscionably stupid covert action (which involved delivering flawed nuclear weapons blueprints to Iran in 2000 with the goal of sabotaging any bomb-building plans, but the flaws were apparently detected and the real data inadvertently exposed genuine nuclear-weapons secrets).

Sterling’s efforts to go through channels had zero results. One need not be a cynic to conclude that the government apparently sees an overweening, countervailing positive in demonstrating to potential whistleblowers (if further evidence were needed) that going to congressional “overseers” is a feckless exercise and only serves to get you in a peck of trouble. When Risen included a section about Operation Merlin in State of War, Sterling became the chief suspect and now faces 10 felony counts, including seven under the Espionage Act.

In this light, is there not supreme irony in former Senate Intelligence Committee chair Diane Feinstein’s plea that former CIA Director David Petraeus not be prosecuted for sharing classified information with his biographer/mistress because he has “suffered enough?” Does one have to be an intelligence officer to appreciate the gravity of that crime, especially since Petraeus served as the agency’s top official? Do the big shots with lots of important friends get one standard of justice and the lower ranks get another?

Apparently, there are some old-timers at the FBI and Justice who deem Petraeus’s alleged indiscretions with classified material eminently worthy to pursue. And they presumably know the sensitivity of what Petraeus shared.

There is sad precedent here. After former CIA Director John Deutch stepped down in December 1996, CIA security discovered that several of his “unclassified” laptop computers at his home contained highly classified intelligence information, spurring a formal security investigation. Deutch got a pardon from President Bill Clinton on his last day in office.

With the arrogant Deutch it was above-the-law hubris, pure and simple; there was no sign of any effort to curry the favors of a paramour-cum-biographer. Sadly for Petraeus, L’Affaire Paula Broadwell seems to be over. Perhaps that is part of what Sen. Feinstein has in mind in suggesting he has already “suffered enough”? And he went through all that embarrassment! Poor boy!

A cruelly different standard applies to Jeffrey Sterling, who is alleged to have let the American people in on the secret of a reckless covert action.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was a CIA analyst for 27 years, and now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

10 comments for “Crime and CIA Embarrassments

  1. ِAbo r
    January 19, 2015 at 00:57


  2. January 14, 2015 at 16:24

    “Do the big shots with lots of important friends get one standard of justice and the lower ranks get another?”
    Absolutely they do. It’s not just the sharing of intelligence that displays the blatant double standard at work in the Petraeus affair. GEN Petraeus also engaged in adultery while he was an active serving officer, this is a UCMJ offense carrying a possibility of up to 2 years in prison. Many lower ranking Soldiers are routinely punished harshly for precisely the same acts that GEN Petraeus engaged in. Also, to think that his affair was not discovered during his security clearance renewal and background check while he was being considered for a position in the agency is nothing short of ridiculous.

  3. Hillary
    January 14, 2015 at 09:53

    Lower-ranking officials have been prosecuted for far less.
    Under Obama more sources of reporters have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act than all other administrations combined, and many have been sentenced to jail for leaks that should have never risen to the level of a criminal indictment.
    As Petraeus himself once said after CIA whistle blower John Kiriakou was convicted for leaking: “There are indeed consequences for those who believe the are above the laws.”

  4. Scott McClain Thompson
    January 13, 2015 at 22:03

    I must confess to slight puzzlement here. Is it not sufficient, that as I urged be sent to you, Mr. McGovern, that all the various rewards, from the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI) concerning Gen. Petraeus for his role as Vice-President of this Institute, whose patron is Queen Elizabeth II, sufficient grounds under the Constitution, that you like to qoute, a violation of great import, as that of serving a Foreign Power: and, that a Monarch of a power against we with vast international support fought a Revolution for those very rights, you say you fight to uphold in every appearance? Is that not a slightly greater act of treason, than to say he shared classified intelligence, with a CIA staffer, for which he has neither been tried; or, convicted by due process of that same Constitution. I know what RUSI says and does–e.g. that thermonuclear WW III might destroy the world’s cities; but, “Higher-Minded People” of the country oligarchy would view those city’s demise as if a mere cloud; and, then “Procreate freely.” In truth, the Queen went so far once, as to believe she might take a barge by night from Loch to Loch, as the last submarine docked in a dead continent with her still safe. I suggest you do not believe perhaps: “You shall know the truth; and, the truth shall make you free.

  5. John Richards
    January 13, 2015 at 19:37

    Outrageous, but hardly surprising. The US has a long history of this type of discrimination in favor of the elite. How many victims of adjustable rate mortgages lost everything, and how many Wall Street thieves were prosecuted? (hint: poor people – 100,000+ and Wall Street bastards – 0) The US government even gave them money so they didn’t miss a bonus!
    There are two sets of rules which apply. Don’t expect it to change.

  6. JWalters
    January 13, 2015 at 18:40

    Thanks for the clear, concise account of the Sterling situation.

    “Do the big shots with lots of important friends get one standard of justice and the lower ranks get another?”

    We’ll know democracy has arrived when this is no longer true. I would only suggest that these big shots and their henchmen in government be distinguished from “the government”. They have captured the government, which, in a democracy, should protect the lower ranks from the historical abuses of the wealthy.

  7. Bill Bodden
    January 13, 2015 at 17:11

    Apparently, there are some old-timers at the FBI and Justice who deem Petraeus’s alleged indiscretions with classified material eminently worthy to pursue.

    Alternatively, this might be payback time for Petreaus’s abortive surge in Afghanistan that he (and McChrystal) pushed on Obama.

    • F. G. Sanford
      January 13, 2015 at 17:45

      I would have guess ‘payback’ for the Benghazi debacle, but whatever it is, there’s bound to be more to this than classified ‘pillow talk’ on electrons.

  8. Joe Tedesky
    January 13, 2015 at 15:26

    I’m guesting that Senator Feinstein isn’t pursuing the torture report issue any longer.

    • Joe Tedesky
      January 13, 2015 at 16:02


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