JOHN KIRIAKOU: Jeffrey Sterling’s ‘Unwanted Spy’

The CIA agent who was imprisoned after bringing a racial discrimination case against the agency has written a gripping David-and-Goliath account of being greatly wronged and coming out stronger on the other side. 

The Federal Correctional Institution, Englewood, in Jefferson County, Colorado, where Jeffrey Sterling was imprisoned.  (Chris Piner, Wikimedia Commons)

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

I had the pleasure this week of introducing CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling upon the launch of his new book, “Unwanted Spy” at an independent bookstore in Washington, D.C.  Sterling was released from prison last year after spending three years there following his unjust conviction on seven espionage charges, ostensibly for leaking classified information to former New York Times reporter James Risen. 

Sterling steadfastly maintained his innocence, refusing to ever consider a plea bargain. He believed that as soon as he could get in front of a jury (in the notorious Eastern District of Virginia, and in front of the notorious Judge Leonie Brinkema) they would see how ridiculous the charges were and would acquit him.  But he was wrong.  The fix was in.

Last July, Sterling’s publisher sent me an advance copy of “Unwanted Spy” and asked for a blurb.  I took it with me on a flight to Greece and, having missed a connection in Athens, sat down to read it.  I quite literally couldn’t put it down, and I finished it in one sitting.

I’ve known Jeffrey Sterling for years.  He was a highly-regarded CIA case officer and Iran expert who was also fluent in Farsi.  He was supposed to be sent to the Middle East to recruit spies to steal secrets, but at the last minute — after his personal effects were put on a ship and sent to his would-be post — his position was withdrawn and he was instead offered a dead-end job in Africa.  He went to his boss to complain.  His talents would go to waste in Africa, he said.  His boss’s response would change the course of Sterling’s life. “We think a big black guy speaking Farsi would look strange.” 

“When did you realize I was black?” was Sterling’s response.

Sterling went on to file a racial discrimination suit against the CIA, and Jim Risen was interested in the story for The New York Times.  That’s how Sterling and Risen met.  But the CIA and the Justice Department would later accuse Sterling of revealing top-secret information related to a botched attempt to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program, something called “Operation Merlin,” to Risen.  The government’s case that these conversations were about Iran and not about a racial discrimination suit was based entirely on metadata.  Sterling and Risen held dozens of phone calls over 18 months, the Justice Department said, alleging that the calls were for Sterling to pass Risen classified information. 

There was no proof, however, that any such conversations had ever taken place.  And indeed, an early target of the Justice Department’s investigation into the leak, a House Intelligence Committee staff member, was fired during the same period. Why?  For having unauthorized contact with James Risen. Given the existence of other legitimate suspects in the leak, why then did the FBI focus solely on Sterling? It was because he had aired the CIA’s dirty laundry.  He had revealed the secret.  The CIA has a history of racism.  There was still discrimination against African-Americans.

Jeffrey Sterling in2016. (Eleivy, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Warning Other Whistleblowers

The government did what it does well. It chose a target, a victim, and set out to ruin him.  That was Jeffrey Sterling.  As in the cases of NSA whistleblowers Tom Drake, Bill Binney, and Kirk Weibe, and in my own whistleblowing case, the purpose was not necessarily to send Sterling to prison for the rest of his life, or even for a long time.  It was to frighten any other would-be whistleblower, anybody considering bringing to light evidence of waste, fraud, abuse, illegality, or threats to the public health or public safety.  Scott Shane, a reporter for The New York Times, said that on the day of my arrest, for example, every one of the Times’s national security sources went completely silent.  That was the goal.

>>Please Donate to Consortium News’ Fall Fund Drive<<

But Jeffrey Sterling would not remain silent. It may sound like a cliché, but it’s true:  They thought they could break him and they failed.  It was Sterling and his whistleblowing who inspired Terry Albury, the FBI agent who went to The Intercept with evidence of racial discrimination at the FBI.  It was Sterling who showed the country that the CIA had a history of racial discrimination that it continues to deny. It was Sterling who refused to be bowed by the weight of the CIA and the FBI coming down on his head.  He won’t just go away quietly.

“Unwanted Spy” is a gripping and eminently readable David and Goliath account of a man being wronged by the government, by the “deep state,” and coming out stronger on the other side.  You’re going to want to read this book.  It’s a life lesson for all of us.

John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

If you enjoyed this original article, please consider making a donation to Consortium News so we can bring you more stories like this one.

Before commenting please read Robert Parry’s Comment Policy. Allegations unsupported by facts, gross or misleading factual errors and ad hominem attacks, and abusive or rude language toward other commenters or our writers will be removed. If your comment does not immediately appear, please be patient as it is manually reviewed. For security reasons, please refrain from inserting links in your comments.

>>Please Donate to Consortium News’ Fall Fund Drive<<

15 comments for “JOHN KIRIAKOU: Jeffrey Sterling’s ‘Unwanted Spy’

  1. Nathan Mulcahy
    October 25, 2019 at 21:56

    Thank you John Kiriakou, thank you Jeffrey Sterling, for your service.

  2. Linda
    October 25, 2019 at 12:54

    Why does the CIA believe that “a big black guy speaking Farsi would look strange” in the ME in the first place? That just seems dumb. Did they send “a big white guy speaking Farsi” instead? Now THAT would look strange in the ME.

  3. michael
    October 25, 2019 at 02:37

    To be an effective CIA “whistleblower” you have to use hearsay evidence, and go outside of the chain of command to a politician’s office and make deals for political value. One could quibble and say that that is more of a CIA “officer” doing his job, as real “whistleblowers” get treated much worse since at least Obama. The Stasi looks benign, blocky and amateurish relative to the American Police State with its 17 Intelligence Agencies.

  4. October 24, 2019 at 17:12

    I agree with my friend John Kiriakou – this book is a must read for anybody interested in transparency and accountability.

    I found the book profoundly sad – sad at what Mr. Sterling was put through.

    I’m glad he’s unbowed after it all.

    Jeff Sterling and John Kiriakou are the true patriots, the true heroes in today’s America.

  5. Louis Quinn
    October 24, 2019 at 15:36

    The Deep State has been around for several generations. It has become a separate society with its own internal/external morality. It has similarities to the British upper class including (generally) receiving an elite education. Mr. Sterling was not born into that society.

    Factual information about the Middle East is dangerous and not for the eyes of outsiders.

    He expected some form of bureaucratic pushback, not a multi-agency conspiracy to destroy him. Mr. Sterling was too visible to straight up kill, although they intentionally exploited a preexisting medical condition in prison (standard procedure).

    Do not underestimate the power of the Deep State. Think big or go home in a box.

  6. Sam F
    October 24, 2019 at 12:13

    Very worthwhile to read.

    The CIA concern that “a big black guy speaking Farsi would look strange” is more belated than unreasonable.
    Perhaps the CIA was antagonized by the “racial discrimination suit against the CIA” which “aired the CIA’s dirty laundry.”
    There is a strong tribalism in the DOJ and judiciary as well, of “us” federal employees against “them” People of the United States.
    The job security of one malefactor of their own tribe is worth far more to them than all constitutional rights of the People.

    This appears to be true throughout the secret agencies, DOJ/FBI, and judiciary: “The government… set out to ruin him… to frighten … anybody considering bringing to light evidence of waste, fraud, abuse, illegality…”
    There is a classic cabal of corruption in federal government,involving the very tools needed to restore democracy.

    The Founders would have rewritten the Constitution to protect democratic institutions and mass media from the corruption of economic power. By the 1820s when the Founders were passing away the US had already lost its fear of invasion (after the War of 1812 ended) and Congress became a squabble of regional demagogues, unable to resolve the North/South issues. From 1870-WW1 the emerging middle class were uninterested, and economic powers gradually took over all branches of federal government and the press, consolidated thereafter but for the reforms under FDR. After WWII secret agencies and the executive were foolishly given unprecedented power to wage secret wars and surveillance never approved by the People. All of this corruption has been in service of the rich, always seeking opposition to socialism or development of impoverished nations, control of all public information, and control of Congress, the Executive, and the Judiciary. End of democracy in the US.

    • Bob Van Noy
      October 24, 2019 at 16:57

      “After WWII secret agencies and the executive were foolishly given unprecedented power to wage secret wars and surveillance never approved by the People.”

      Many thanks Sam F. Yes, this simple fact which has been carefully hidden behind a thick curtain of lies and obfuscation, has been the dilemma of a lifetime. It is past due to address these faults and make a serious attempt to establish a People’s Democracy…

      Thanks CN and John Kiriakou

    • Becky
      October 25, 2019 at 21:35


    • Sam F
      October 27, 2019 at 21:37

      And thank you, Bob and Becky. I hope that my foresight is incorrect, that the prospect for restoration of democracy is distant, for we need to bring hope as well as facts to encourage reformers.

  7. Gay Chung
    October 24, 2019 at 11:02

    Mahalo for shedding light on this issue. While I find it difficult to be sympathetic to anyone who works for the CIA, transparency is the best way to hold this corrupt agency accountable for ALL of its wrongdoing.

  8. October 24, 2019 at 10:52

    I find it hard to drum up sympathy for anyone in the CIA.
    The agency should be disbanded.

    • Sam F
      October 24, 2019 at 21:34

      Agreed on disbanding most of the secret agencies. Yet in every agency there are those who began with good intentions, who may continue there in hope of moderation or reform. Those are our allies, the patriots against the opportunists, the ones of principle who balance the wrongdoers and expose wrongs in extreme cases.

  9. ML
    October 24, 2019 at 09:22

    Thanks John, for this report. I didn’t know as much about Mr. Sterling before this. Now I want to read his book. You both have the respect of so many good citizens who deeply care about injustices like yours and his. If only we could all rise up and free Mr. Assange. Such travesty. How do your former bosses sleep at night? Just fine, I’m betting. Heartsick we are, though we must march forward, speaking out. Thank you for your part.

  10. Sally Snyder
    October 24, 2019 at 07:46

    Here is an article that looks at how the Pentagon treats the whistleblowers in its ranks: October 2019: whistleblowing-at-pentagon-protections

    It would appear that the Department of Defense is either ill-prepared or doesn’t care about any complaints that it receives about its operations, spending or senior personnel.

  11. geeyp
    October 24, 2019 at 05:12

    All the aforementioned cases are quite well known now. No question they were difficult for spouses and families, as they tried to stay together though the storm. Off the top of my head, I don’t recall one situation like Jeffrey Sterling’s where his wife was, from the start, out there pleading for help for Jeffrey. Crying through the tears, just desperate to at least get him imprisoned closer to home, as I recall from that time. You could hear the helplessness and passion in her pleas. The sense that the intelligence agencies are evil is well past any argument to the contrary.

Comments are closed.