Jeffrey Sterling case: Court convicts CIA operative of leaking classified information to New York Times journalist James Risen

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said leak related to one of the government's most closely held secrets 


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The Independent US

A former CIA officer had been convicted of leaking classified details of an operation to thwart Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions to an American journalist.

Jurors convicted 47-year-old Jeffrey Sterling of all nine counts he faced in a case that had been delayed for years. On the third day of deliberations, the jurors had told the judge that they could not reach a unanimous verdict. But they delivered guilty verdicts later in the afternoon after the judge urged them to keep talking, the Associated Press reported.

Sterling was convicted of leaking the information to James Risen of the New York Times, who refused to provide evidence in the trial about where he had obtained his details.

Prosecutors had acknowledged a lack of direct evidence against Sterling but said the circumstantial evidence against him was overwhelming. Defence lawyers, meanwhile, had said the evidence showed that employees of elected representatives on Capitol Hill were more likely to be the source of the leak.

The court heard that the plan involved using a CIA asset nicknamed Merlin, who had been a Russian nuclear engineer, to foist deliberately flawed nuclear-weapons blueprints on the Iranians, hoping they would spend years trying to develop parts that had no hope of ever working.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the court that the operation was one of the government's most closely held secrets as well as one of its best chances to thwart Iran's nuclear-weapons ambitions.

US intelligence has since confirmed it does not believe Iran is currently seeking to develop a nuclear weapon.

Mr Risen’s 2006 book, State of War, describes the mission as hopelessly botched, and possibly backfiring by giving the Iranians blueprints that could be useful to them if they sorted out the good information from the errors.

In his closing arguments, prosecutor Eric Olshan said the chapter of Mr Risen’s book seemed to be clearly written from Sterling’s perspective as Merlin's case handler. The book describes the handler’s misgivings about the operation while others at the CIA push the plan through despite its risks.