Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling, Who Went Through Kafkaesque Trial, Wins 2020 Sam Adams Award

Ray McGovern reviews the case of CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling, who spent more than two years in jail, and the decision to award him the 2020 Sam Adams award. 

Sterling Meets Kafka

By Ray McGovern
Special to Consortium News

Former CIA operations officer Jeffrey Sterling will receive the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence this Wednesday, joining 17 earlier winners who, like Sterling, demonstrated extraordinary devotion to the truth and the rule of law by having the courage to blow the whistle on government wrongdoing.

Tuesday will mark the fifth anniversary of the eerie beginning of Sterling’s trial for espionage — the kind of trial that might have left even Franz Kafka, author of the classic novel The Trial, stunned in disbelief.

There can be a heavy price exacted for exposing abuse by secretive governments — especially ones that have neutered the press to the point where they are immune to exposure when they take serious liberties with the law. Making this reality plainly obvious, of course, is one of the U.S. government’s primary aims in putting whistleblowers like Sterling in prison — lest others get the idea they can blow the whistle and get away with it.

With his Sam Adams award, Sterling brings to five the number of award recipients imprisoned for exposing government abuse (not counting 2013 Sam Adams laureate, Ed Snowden, who was made stateless and has been marooned in Russia for over six years). Worst still, Julian Assange (2010) and Chelsea Manning (2014) remain in prison, where UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer says they are being tortured.

The Sam Adams Award recipient in 2016, John Kiriakou, having served his own two-year prison term for speaking out against U.S. torture, will be among those welcoming Sterling at Wednesday’s award ceremony. Both were subjected to the tender mercies of Judge Leonie Brinkema— widely known as the “hanging judge” of the gallows-friendly Eastern District of Virginia, where Assange has also been indicted under the same World War I Espionage Act used to convict Sterling.

Not a Miscarriage; an Abortion

Jeffrey Sterling in 2016. (Eleivy, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Sterling’s trial has been wrongly called a “miscarriage” of justice. It was not a miscarriage, it was an abortion. I am an eyewitness to it.

Five years ago, with Kafka casting a long shadow, I sat through Sterling’s trial with a handful of colleagues painfully aware of the Queen-of-Hearts kind of “justice” Brinkema was likely to apply. Sadly, she exceeded our expectations — gloomy as they were. As for Sterling, he knew he was innocent. He had followed the rules by going to congressional oversight authorities cleared for classified information in order to expose a covert operation what was not only feckless but also dangerous. Thus, he was confident he would be vindicated — despite the “hanging judge,” the all-white jury, and the draconian Espionage Act.

He knew he was innocent, but these days knowing you are innocent can create a false sense of security as well as self-confidence. Sterling assumed — correctly, it turned out — that the government could come up with no persuasive evidence against him. In these circumstances it would make little sense for him to accept the kind of plea bargain customarily offered in such cases. Clearly, his ultimate trust in our judicial system was misplaced. How could he have known that he could be tried, convicted, and sent to prison with no more evidence than “metadata”; that is, content-less, circumstantial evidence.

The good news is that Sterling’s prison time is now behind him. He and his intrepid wife Holly will be back this week in Washington, however briefly, with friends and admirers who are eager to celebrate the integrity that he and Holly have shown over these past five painful years.

‘Unwanted Spy: The Persecution
of an American Whistleblower’

Kafka. (Wikipedia)

That is the title Sterling gave to the excellent memoir he published last fall. Activist/author David Swanson, who also attended the trial, wrote the first review for Amazon; he titled it “Join the CIA: Travel the World Passing Out Nuclear Blueprints.” (Warning: Before you read Swanson’s typically perceptive comments, you may wish to “have your credit card ready” as you may find it difficult to resist the impulse to order the book.)

Further background on Sterling’s version of The Trial can be found in the blanket, contemporaneous coverage Consortium News gave to it five years ago. Later, (on March 2, 2018) Consortium published what is by far the most trenchant and instructive analysis of the entire codenamed Operation Merlin caper to trap Iran — an article by award winning investigative reporter Gareth Porter entitled “How ‘Operation Merlin’ poisoned U.S. Intelligence on Iran.”

Porter’s piece is far more than just an “inside baseball’ account of some of the personal and structural disasters befalling U.S. intelligence over the past two decades. Rather, it is a well documented indictment of the ambitious clowns running the CIA in those times and their pandering to powerful interests like the Israel Lobby in trying to manufacture the image of an Iranian “mushroom-cloud” — counterpart to the one conjured up to “justify” war on Iraq.

Indeed, it is fairly well known that Israel wanted President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to “do Iran” first, before attacking Iraq. Bush’s neocon advisers were beating their chests, shouting, “Real men go to Tehran.”

In my view, the miscreant intelligence chiefs, who kowtowed to that braggadocio and tailored “intelligence” to help, are the ones that should have been put in prison — not patriots like Sterling, who tried to expose the foolishness. Porter’s findings with regard to the “poisoning of U.S. intelligence on Iran” have huge implications today. Can we afford to take at face value the “intelligence” served up to justify U.S. hostility to Iran? Porter’s piece is a must read in these days of dramatic confrontation with Teheran.

Risen. (Wikipedia)

Sterling’s trial included elements of farce as well as drama. In an example of both, the CIA released original cables carefully selected to prove that Sterling was guilty of leaking the gory details to Risen of the Iran-targeted Operation Merlin, a CIA plot to use a Russian cutout to pass a flawed design for a nuclear weapon, intended to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.

The cables were heavily redacted, of course. But, alas, not enough to hide what seems to be an important aspect of the Merlin story — namely, that Iraq, as well as Iran, was in the crosshairs of the Merlin covert action. Unsurprisingly, the media missed this, but Swanson, who attended some of the trial, closely scrutinized one of the cables introduced as evidence and found it to be amateurishly redacted. Inspector Clouseau, himself, could have figured out some of the key words beneath the redaction.

Swanson published his findings under the title: “In Convicting Jeff Sterling, CIA Revealed More Than It Accused Him of Revealing.” Swanson’s piece is revealing.

Only those seeking the truth about Operation Merlin took notice. All it required for Swanson was (1) to care about whether justice, or an abortion of justice, was about to occur, and (2) to apply some rudimentary tradecraft common to detective work and intelligence analysis.

Those with strong stomachs who have not yet read the Operation Merlin chapter in Risen’s State of War, are strongly encouraged to do so. Risen’s chapter will provide readers with a strong flavor for why the pro-active ringleaders of CIA’s well funded covert operations were so upset with the revelations and so obsessed with the notion that additional leaks were likely unless someone — anyone — could be framed, blamed, and imprisoned.

Kafka Shadows ‘The Trial’ of Sterling

With the play-by-play regarding the charges against Sterling, the reasons behind them, and how the government could imprison him on metadata-sans-content and other background readily available to those interested in more detail, let me add some color regarding the grotesque ambiance of the trial itself —the trial’s metadata, if you will.

Federal Court in Alexandria, VA. (Flickr)

The scene was surreal. The trial began on Jan. 14, 2015 with witnesses speaking from behind a 12-foot-tall screen, a kind of metaphor for the smoke and mirrors to which we were about to be exposed. It was not possible to get The Trial by Kafka out of my mind. In Kafka’s unnerving novel the protagonist, “Joseph K.”, has a profound sense of being trapped — of being a helpless pawn in the hands of a mysterious “Court.” (Kafka had been a government employee in Hapsburg Austria with ample opportunity to observe bureaucracy in action, an aspect that looms large in the novel.)

The Trial depicts the legal, bureaucratic, and social forces controlling individual freedom. “ Joseph K.” is innocent of any wrongdoing; despite this, he is arrested and executed. Worse still, all the characters in the novel — including eventually Mr. K. — bow their heads in resignation, assuming this to be the normal, if unfortunate, state of affairs.

How would one interpret The Trial for high school or college students, I thought to myself. A Google search found a teaching guide to the book from Random House.

How can teachers overcome some of the general difficulties presented in The Trial? First, try to “see in Josef K.’s predicament a basic human problem that anyone can identify with: how to defend oneself against an authority with overwhelming power.” Good. But in The Trial not only do the good guys not win, but there are no good guys — no positive characters in this totally depressing story. And — worse still — there is no love interest.

Here’s where Sterling’s trial diverges from Kafka. There’s much to admire in Sterling’s case. Positive characters abound, first and foremost, Sterling and his intrepid wife Holly. This is not Hapsburg Austria, but the United States of America; this trial is not normal; they do not acquiesce; there is no bowing of heads.

And neither do their friends. We do not lack for empirical data on the proclivities of a stifling, cowardly bureaucracy. And as for love interest — seldom have I observed such an edifying example of day-to-day love and mutual support. Holly is always there. Far from facing lonely execution like Kafka’s “Joseph K.,” Sterling stands affirmed in his steadfastness — and will be suitably honored this week by his peers. It is Kafka no more.

The super-grade sleuths who set out to demoralize and depress the Sterlings have achieved the exact opposite. Underneath all the pomp and circumstance, the CIA bureaucracy’s behavior at its worst has been exposed.

Conmen & Condoleezza

Rice. (Wikipedia)

It was interesting, if not depressing, to watch in court (or when blocked by the high screen, simply to listen) to CIA bureaucrats from the covert action side of the agency ply their trade to what seemed to be largely naive, unsuspecting targets — whether prosecutors, judge, or jury. These functionaries are, after all, “case officers”; their stock in trade is conning people — whether in court, on the Hill, or with an already tamed domestic media.

Overseas, of course, they use their well developed wiles to suborn foreigners into treason against their own country. During the Sterling trial, their art was on full display domestically. The only thing left unclear was whether the courtroom targets of their cultivation and recruitment were aware they were being conned. Aware or not, CIA’s case officers built an effective united front before judge and jury.

On the last day of the trial, the government brought in some big-gun liars-in-chief to impress the jury and close their scapegoat case. This time the media were very much in attendance, as duchess-of-the-mushroom-cloud, former secretary of state and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice stiletto-heeled into the courtroom to testify against Sterling. From the hushed reaction it was clear she was still clothed in highly effective — if metaphorical — Teflon.

It was, one might say, “shock and awe” of a different sort. No one in the awe-struck audience seemed focused on the consequential lies Rice told a dozen years before to “justify” the catastrophic war on Iraq, or of the White House orientation sessions she orchestrated to brief Bush’s most senior national security officials on CIA torture techniques to apparently obtain their buy-in and ensure they could not feign innocence. (Referring to those macabre briefings, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft commented, “History will not be kind to us.” Sadly, those involved are still getting away with it.

I was sitting on the end of the aisle as Rice pranced by, and she turned a happy-face smile toward me. In reaction, I could not resist whispering a one-syllable word for “prevaricator.” Undaunted, she smiled all the more.


Also testifying on that final day was William Harlow, CIA prevaricator-in-chief under “slam-dunk” director George Tenet, under whose “leadership” Operation Merlin was conceived and implemented. Besides ghostwriting books by Tenet and the like, Harlow’s claim to fame rests in having successfully steered the media away from the well-documented reality that Iraq had no WMD before it was attacked on March 20, 2003.

On Feb. 24, 2003, Newsweek published an exclusive report by John Barry based on the official UN inspectors’ transcript of the debriefing of Hussein Kamel, a son-in-law of Saddam Hussein. Kamel had been in charge of Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs and the missiles to deliver such weapons. Kamel assured his interrogators that all had been destroyed. (In a classic understatement, Newsweek’s Barry commented, “The defector’s tale raises questions about whether the WMD stockpiles attributed to Iraq still exist.”)

Barry added that Kamel had been interrogated in separate sessions by the CIA, British intelligence, and a trio from the UN inspection team; that Newsweek had been able to verify that the UN document was authentic, and that Kamel had “told the same story to the CIA and the British.” In short, Barry’s scoop had already been confirmed. And the CIA knew with certainty that what Kamel said in 1995 was still the truth in 2003. Documentary evidence — a potential bombshell. How would that impact plans to attack Iraq a month later?

Harlow rose to the occasion. When the media asked him about Barry’s report, he called it “incorrect, bogus, wrong, untrue.” And the mainstream media said, in effect, “Oh, Gosh. Thanks for letting us know. We might have run a story on that.”

I am not one to hold grudges. I make an exception for Harlow. After he testified he noticed that the only empty seat in the courtroom was the one next to me. “Hi, Ray,” he said, as he eased into the chair. I did not want to create a scene, so I wrote and passed him this note:

“Newsweek, Feb 24, 2003, Hussein Kamel debrief report after his defection in 1995: “I ordered the destruction of all WMD.”

Harlow says Newsweek story “incorrect, bogus, wrong, untrue.”

4,500 U.S. troops dead. Liar.”

Harlow read my note, gave me the Condoleezza Rice happy smile, and said, “Good to see you, Ray.”


A reminder from Lord Acton, 19th century politician and historian: “Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice.”

Below is the text of the citation accompanying the award to Jeffrey Sterling:

Ray McGovern works for Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for a total of 30 years and conducted the in-person morning briefings of the President’s Daily Brief during the first Reagan administration. In retirement he co-created Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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13 comments for “Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling, Who Went Through Kafkaesque Trial, Wins 2020 Sam Adams Award

  1. JG
    January 16, 2020 at 07:06

    The award could not go to a better person. I have known Jeffry for many years and have seen how he has suffered for the truth. It was an honor to see him receive the award.

  2. Seer
    January 14, 2020 at 03:36

    Why can’t we have people like McGovern and Sterling sitting positions of “authority” and all the prevaricators sitting in prison?

    I’m proud to have contributed to Sterling’s legal funds.

    Thank you, Ray for your continued vigilance.

  3. Jacquelynn Booth
    January 13, 2020 at 21:08

    May God bless & protect the Sterling family, and all truth tellers and whistleblowers, especially from harm by agents of the Empire and its minions.

  4. David Otness
    January 13, 2020 at 19:50

    This is one seriously GOOD writing. You did the story justice and then some. Thank you for this intimate, telling account and bringing us closer to the smiling lies of these “power” peoples’ lives, and the well-deserved and personal takedowns of Rice and Harrow, ‘kept’ hypocrites that they are.
    I wish Mr Sterling and his wife all the best from here on out, and salute them for their fealty to truth and what was once known to us as ‘the American way of life.’
    These very few stellar citizen / whistleblowers (and coincidently frequently featured in Consortium News,) like the previous Sam Adams Award winners featured herein, are the true heroes of this once-proud nation. They deserve our respect. They certainly have mine, along with the VIPS contributors one and all.

  5. Rob
    January 13, 2020 at 14:18

    Kafka’s “The Trial” has been my favorite work of literary fiction ever since I read it many years ago. I, too, think of it whenever cases like Sterling’s arise, and there have been more than a few. Just think of Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange for starters.

  6. Ariel Reich
    January 13, 2020 at 13:52

    Having heard interviews with Jeffrey Sterling, I came away with the impression that the CIA wanted the Iranians to have a practical design for a nuclear bomb, so that they could turn around and accuse them of same as a pretext for launch massive pre-emptive strikes against all their nuclear facilities. Much like a corrupt cop planting cocaine on a suspect. Jeffrey’s whistleblowing prevented the CIA from hiding behind a “whoopsie, our bad” defense about passing the information in the first place.

  7. DP
    January 13, 2020 at 12:52

    “When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.”

    A load of tyranny it is then, covered by a liberty flag.

    It is time for the people to make a change.

  8. January 13, 2020 at 12:21

    Thank you for this article! I am reminded of sitting in Federal Court in Richmond with NC Stop Torture Now Activists near Khalid El-Masri who was a victim of one of the CIA Torture Flights (and not even the man they were trying to get.) The court accepted invocation of ‘State Secrets’ to shield the Federal Government from the ACLU’s case on Masri’s behalf even though the facts in question were already documented and in the public domain! I’m also reminded of victimization of US professor Dr. Sami Al-Arian for refusing to testify against a group I believe was invalidly designated as associated with terrorism. We must continue to resist and speak truth to power against state terrorists who are committing assassinations and mass murder with impunity.

  9. Gordon J. Reeves
    January 13, 2020 at 11:52

    Wonderful news and royal recognition of a brave TRUE Patriot brutally abandoned and institutionally-crucified by his despicable humanly-bankrupt thoroughly corrupt officials who (and their descendents) will all be hung by history when ° ~ The New Nuremberg ~ • arrives. * Consortium * will be among the heroes celebrated at that time.

  10. Billy Halgat
    January 13, 2020 at 11:42

    “No responsibility of government is more fundamental than the responsibility of maintaining the highest standard of ethical behavior for those who conduct the public business.”
    — President John F. Kennedy

    “Let them see what they’ve done.”
    — Mrs. Jacqueline B. Kennedy

    With the most enduring of respect and admiration, thank-you, Jeffrey and Holly! Congratulations, on a difficult mission extremely well done, indeed.

  11. Truth first
    January 13, 2020 at 11:06

    Sterling’s case makes it clear, along with Manning and others, that people who want to reveal ILLEGAL government actions will not receive a fair trial.

  12. Michael Crockett
    January 13, 2020 at 00:19

    Thanks Ray, your article is well written and concise. Jeffrey Sterling is an American hero and very deserving of the 2020 Sam Adams Award. However, even with the truth of Operation Merlin exposed, it looks as though the Idiot in Chief, Pompous and the intelligence agencies will double down on the lying, cheating, and stealing to get their war on Iran.

  13. Michael
    January 12, 2020 at 23:06

    Congratulations, Sterling! Let us hope that among the names Kiriakou, McGovern and Binney we also see yours as regular contributor to Consortium News.

Comments are closed.