Was Race a Factor in Sterling Case?

President Obama’s war on whistleblowers grinds on with ex-CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling dispatched to a federal prison in Colorado, far from his home and family. In Sterling’s case, there’s also the disturbing issue of race, as Norman Solomon explains.

By Norman Solomon

Last week CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling went to prison. If he were white, he probably wouldn’t be there.

Sterling was one of the CIA’s few African-American case officers, and he became the first to file a racial discrimination lawsuit against the agency. That happened shortly before the CIA fired him in late 2001. The official in Langley who did the firing face-to-face was John Brennan, now the CIA’s director and a close adviser to President Barack Obama.

Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling.

Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling.

Five months ago, in court, prosecutors kept claiming that Sterling’s pursuit of the racial-bias lawsuit showed a key “motive” for providing classified information to journalist James Risen. The government’s case at the highly problematic trial was built entirely on circumstantial evidence. Lacking anything more, the prosecution hammered on ostensible motives, telling the jury that Sterling’s “anger,” “bitterness” and “selfishness” had caused him to reveal CIA secrets.

But the history of Sterling’s conflicts with the CIA has involved a pattern of top-down retaliation. Sterling became a problem for high-ranking officials, who surely did not like the bad publicity that his unprecedented lawsuit generated. And Sterling caused further hostility in high places when, in the spring of 2003, he went through channels to tell Senate Intelligence Committee staffers of his concerns about the CIA’s reckless Operation Merlin, which had given Iran some flawed design information for a nuclear weapons component.

Among the U.S. government’s advantages at the trial last winter was the fact that the jury did not include a single African-American. And it was drawn from a jury pool imbued with the CIA-friendly company town atmosphere of Northern Virginia.

Sterling’s long struggle against institutionalized racism is far from over. It continues as he pursues a legal appeal. He’s in a prison near Denver, nearly 900 miles from his home in the St. Louis area, making it very difficult for his wife Holly to visit.

Last week, as Sterling headed to Colorado, journalist Kevin Gosztola wrote an illuminating piece that indicated the federal Bureau of Prisons has engaged in retaliation by placing Sterling in a prison so far from home. Gosztola concluded: “There really is no accountability for BOP officials who inappropriately designate inmates for prisons far away from their families.”

With the government eager to isolate Jeffrey Sterling, it’s important for him to hear from people who wish him well. Before going to prison, Sterling could see many warmly supportive comments online, posted by contributors to the Sterling Family Fund and signers of the petition that urged the Justice Department to drop all charges against him.

Now he can get postal mail at: Jeffrey Sterling, 38338-044, FCI Englewood, Federal Correctional Institution, 9595 West Quincy Ave., Littleton, CO 80123.

(Sterling can receive only letters and cards. “All incoming correspondence is reviewed,” the Sterling Family Fund notes. “It is important that all content is of an uplifting nature as any disparaging comments about the government, the trial or any peoples involved will have negative consequences for Jeffrey.”)

While it’s vital that Sterling hear from well-wishers, it’s also crucial that the public hear from him. “The Invisible Man: CIA Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling,” released the day after he was sentenced in mid-May, made it possible for the public to hear his voice. The short documentary (which I produced for ExposeFacts) was directed by Oscar nominee Judith Ehrlich.

More recently, journalist Peter Maass did a fine job with an extensive article, “How Jeffrey Sterling Took on the CIA — and Lost Everything.”

It should be unacceptable that racism helped the government to put Jeffrey Sterling in prison.

Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, where he coordinates ExposeFacts. Solomon is a co-founder of RootsAction.org, which has encouraged donations to the Sterling Family Fund. Disclosure: After the guilty verdict five months ago, Solomon used his frequent-flyer miles to get plane tickets for Holly and Jeffrey Sterling so they would be able to go home to St. Louis.

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5 comments for “Was Race a Factor in Sterling Case?

  1. angrysittle
    June 25, 2015 at 21:46

    This is a warning. Don’t rat us out or we’ll fuck you over. Big time.

  2. Zachary Smith
    June 25, 2015 at 17:21

    Sterling’s lawyers called attention to what they regard as another inequity in the treatment of Petraeus and their client. Petraeus admitted in his plea agreement that the classified information he leaked included highly sensitive names of covert operatives, war plans for U.S. forces, as well as details about his discussions with senior officials, including President Obama. Petraeus also admitted to lying to FBI agents about what he had done. Sterling, his lawyers noted, “revealed the names of no covert personnel and never lied about his actions to the FBI.”

    Petraeus is presently walking the streets. You’ve got to wonder ‘why’ the differential in sentences.

    https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/04/24/petraeus-gets-lenience-and-risens-cia-source-jeffrey-sterling-should-too/

  3. Doug
    June 25, 2015 at 16:55

    I concur with the above comment…The CIA is a criminal organization of the ‘highest order’.
    Murder and Mayhem is their mode of operation. Mr. Sterling, be he white or black..is lucky to be
    alive…getting that close to John Brennan and then turning whistleblower is very dangerous,
    indeed. I wish Mr. Sterling and his family the best and hope he gets out of prison, soon!
    The CIA is the U.S. Stasi but much more dangerous!

  4. xxxxxxx
    June 25, 2015 at 15:55

    There is a lot more wrong with the CIA than mere racism. This man may be a victim, but he is hardly an innocent one. He took a job working for a criminal organization, helping them do evil things, and then he is surprised when they turn out to do evil to him too. What else would he expect from psychopaths and mass murderers?

    A falling out between members of a gang of thugs is reason for the public to cheer, not take sides just because one thug is being bashed by the others. I would feel better about helping him if he said he repented ever helping the CIA, not just that they treated one of their lackies unfairly.

    As for “whistle-blowing”, that is not needed where the CIA is concerned. ANYTHING they do is wrong by definition. We do not need to know the details to know that. Even if reform were possible, the CIA should be abolished, not reformed.

  5. Mark
    June 25, 2015 at 11:42

    Not to question the issue of racism here, but (generally speaking and profiling) for people in power to retaliate against dissenting subordinates is not at all uncommon and may or may not have anything to do with racism depending on…. Either way it’s petty spitefulness to retaliate on a personal level which itself is again (generally speaking), a common if not prevalent reaction among law enforcement types. I don’t like stereotyping but it is true that certain personality traits or characteristics are more common in certain professions. There seems to be a very fine gray line between an officer that upholds the law and one that is a criminal within the law.

    Of course if there was and is racism in the Sterling case, it is now conjoined with the criminal offense of having lied about it in court.

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