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Press Release

Former CIA Officer Convicted Of Leaking Classified Information And Obstruction Of Justice

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Eastern District of Virginia
Disclosed classified information about a clandestine operational program designed to undermine Iran’s nuclear weapons program

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Jeffrey A. Sterling, 47, of O’Fallon, Missouri, was convicted today by a federal jury on charges of disclosing national defense information and obstructing justice.

Dana J. Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia; Attorney General Eric Holder; and FBI Director James Comey made the announcement after the verdict was accepted by U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema.

“This is a just and appropriate outcome,” said Attorney General Holder.  “The defendant’s unauthorized disclosures of classified information compromised operations undertaken in defense of America’s national security.  The disclosures placed lives at risk.  And they constituted an egregious breach of the public trust by someone who had sworn to uphold it. As this verdict proves, it is possible to fully prosecute unauthorized disclosures that inflict harm upon our national security without interfering with journalists' ability to do their jobs.  And I want to thank the investigators, prosecutors, and support staff who made this outcome possible for their relentless efforts in advancing a complex case that spanned multiple years.”

"He violated his sworn duty to protect our nation's secrets and he betrayed our country,” said FBI Director Comey. “The FBI will continue to pursue these cases vigorously."

“Over 10 years ago a disgruntled former CIA employee disclosed extremely sensitive classified information to a reporter who used the information in a book,” said U.S. Attorney Boente. “That classified information was critical to our national defense, and releasing it was illegal and went against Mr. Sterling’s professional commitments to the CIA. Mr. Sterling’s vindictive and careless choices ultimately led us here today and to this unanimous verdict. I would like to thank the trial team and our partners at the FBI’s Washington Field Office and the Central Intelligence Agency for their hard work and commitment to this case.”

Sterling was indicted on Dec. 22, 2010, arrested on Jan 6, 2011, and will be sentenced on April 24, 2015.

According to court records and evidence at trial, Sterling was employed by the CIA from May 1993 to January 2002.  From November 1998 through May 2000, he was assigned to a classified clandestine operational program designed to undermine the Iranian nuclear weapons program.  He was also the operations officer assigned to handle a human asset associated with that program, a person identified at trial as Merlin.  Sterling was reassigned in May 2000, at which time he was no longer authorized to receive or possess classified documents concerning the program or the individual.

In connection with his employment, Sterling, who is a lawyer, signed various security, secrecy and non-disclosure agreements in which he agreed never to disclose classified information to unauthorized persons, acknowledged that classified information was the property of the CIA, and also acknowledged that the unauthorized disclosure of classified information could constitute a criminal offense.  These agreements also set forth the proper procedures to follow if Sterling had concerns that the CIA had engaged in any “unlawful or improper” conduct that implicated classified information.  These procedures permit such concerns to be addressed while still protecting the classified nature of the information.  The media was not an authorized party to receive such classified information.

In August 2000, Sterling pursued administrative and civil actions against the CIA.  Evidence at trial showed that Sterling, in retaliation for the CIA’s refusal to settle those actions on terms favorable to him, disclosed information concerning the classified operational program and the human asset to a New York Times reporter working on an unpublished article in early 2003 and a book the reporter published in January 2006.  Sterling’s civil and administrative claims were ultimately dismissed by the court.

Evidence demonstrated that in February and March 2003, Sterling made various telephone calls to the reporter’s residence and e-mailed a newspaper article about the weapons capabilities of a certain country that was within Sterling’s previous clandestine operational assignment.  While the possible newspaper article containing the classified information Sterling provided was ultimately not published in 2003, evidence showed that Sterling and the reporter remained in touch from December 2003 through November 2005 via telephone and e-mail.  In January 2006, the reporter published a book that contained classified information about the program and the human asset.

Evidence at trial showed that Sterling was aware of a grand jury investigation into the matter by June 2006 when he was served a grand jury subpoena for documents relating to the reporter’s book.  Nevertheless, between April and July 2006, Sterling deleted the e-mail containing the classified information he had sent from his account in an effort to obstruct the investigation.

This case was investigated by the FBI’s Washington Field Office with assistance in the arrest of the FBI’s St. Louis Field Office. Assistant U.S. Attorneys James L. Trump and Dennis Fitzpatrick, along with Trial Attorney Eric G. Olshan of the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section prosecuted the case on behalf of the United States.

A copy of this press release may be found on the website of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.  Related court documents and information may be found on the website of the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia or on PACER by searching for Case No. 1:10-cr-485.

Updated March 18, 2015