Former CIA agent convicted under Espionage Act visits MU

Jeffrey Sterling spoke at Reynolds Journalism Institute Tuesday, where he talked about being convicted under the Espionage Act.

Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA agent and one of the only black agents to serve for the agency, spoke at Smith Forum at Reynolds Journalism Institute Tuesday.

Sterling discussed his recent memoir, “Unwanted Spy: The Persecution of an American Whistleblower” and fielded questions from moderator and journalism professor Kathy Kiely and the audience of mostly students.

Sterling is one of the few to ever be convicted of violating the Espionage Act. He served two years in federal prison for allegedly leaking CIA classified information during his decade-long stint at the CIA.

Despite being convicted, Sterling denies leaking classified information about Operation Merlin, a then-covert operation aimed to hinder Iran’s nuclear program, to journalist James Risen. However, he still considers himself a whistleblower.

“When someone takes a stand or says no to power or status quo, you don’t have it in your mind ‘Oh, I’m a whistleblower … ’” Sterling said. “It took a while for me to accept that I was a whistleblower in the nomenclature of the day.”

Filing a discrimination suit against the CIA is one reason why Sterling believes he fits the whistleblower label. Sterling said his race prevented him from receiving the same covert opportunities other agents received. The suit was dismissed by a judge after the government argued litigation would reveal classified information, thus violating state secrets privilege.

Sterling said being a whistleblower is about revealing information that ultimately benefits the public interest.

“I came to that realization that, ‘Yes, I was a whistleblower,’” Sterling said. “I went through the proper procedures. I can wear that mantle of being a whistleblower with pride. It did take a while for me to feel that I was in that discussion.”

Sterling said he enjoys that whistleblowing has been a hot topic in the news since an unnamed CIA agent came forward about a phone conversation President Donald Trump had with Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky. The whistleblower filed a complaint alleging Trump of abusing his powers through asking Zelensky to investigate 2020 presidential Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

“My advice is ‘do not be intimidated,’” Sterling said when asked if he has any advice for the Ukraine whistleblower. “Stay the course — you chose to take a stand.”

Edited by Ben Scott |

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