By Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 10:52 PM
A former CIA officer involved in spying efforts against Iran was arrested Thursday on charges of leaking classified information to a reporter, continuing the Obama administration's unprecedented crackdown on the flow of government secrets to the media.
Jeffrey A. Sterling, 43, of O'Fallon, Mo., was charged with 10 felony counts, including obstruction of justice and unauthorized disclosure of national defense information. A federal indictment made public Thursday in the Eastern District of Virginia accuses Sterling of leaking secrets after he was fired from the CIA and the agency refused to settle a racial discrimination claim he made.
The intensified campaign against leaks comes as the U.S. government is confronting a potent new threat to its ability to keep secrets from public view. Over the past year, the WikiLeaks Web site has posted and shared with multiple media organizations thousands of classified U.S. military records and State Department cables.
The indictment, returned under seal last month, does not identify the alleged recipient of the classified information. But former U.S. intelligence officials and lawyers familiar with the case said the journalist is New York Times reporter James Risen.
The officials said Sterling has long been suspected within the agency of providing Risen with extensive information about CIA efforts to sabotage Iran's nuclear program, material that is believed to have formed the basis for a prominent chapter in Risen's 2006 book, "State of War."
Edward B. MacMahon Jr., Sterling's attorney, denied the allegations, saying: "He has always maintained his innocence throughout the course of this entire investigation. We'll seek to prove that in court."
Risen's attorney, David N. Kelley, said he had not reviewed the indictment but stressed that his client "did not testify, did not provide any information and did not cooperate with the government."
The indictment is the latest in a series of cases the Justice Department has brought against alleged leakers of government secrets since President Obama took office.
Steven Aftergood, an expert on government classification issues at the Federation of American Scientists, said the five leaks cases brought so far during the Obama administration exceed the total for all previous administrations.
He said the intense focus has "cast a chill on relations between national security officials and members of the public."
Other cases brought during the Obama administration include the indictment in April last year of Thomas A. Drake, a former executive at the National Security Agency accused of leaking information to the Baltimore Sun; as well as a State Department contractor indicted in August on charges of leaking information to Fox News.
The latest indictment includes details about dozens of phone calls and e-mails exchanged between Sterling and a journalist identified in the document only as Author A, beginning in 2002.
Sterling was the subject of a lengthy New York Times article by Risen in March of that year that reported Sterling's assertion that his career had been repeatedly derailed by racial discrimination within the CIA.
Sterling was described in the piece as the "sole black officer" assigned to the Iran Task Force in January 1995. He handled Iranian sources, was subsequently trained in Farsi nd was sent to a station in Germany to recruit Iranian spies.
Sterling asserts in the article that he was undermined in that job and that he was passed over for others by senior CIA officials who considered him a liability because of his skin color. At one point, he said, a supervisor told him that he couldn't function as a spy because "you kind of stick out as a big black guy."
Sterling, a lawyer who also sparred with senior CIA officials over his plans to publish a memoir, filed a complaint with the CIA's anti-discrimination office in 2000 and subsequently sued the agency.
According to the indictment, about two weeks after the CIA rejected a third settlement offer from Sterling, he "placed an interstate telephone call" from his home in Herndon to the Maryland residence of Author A.
In subsequent calls and e-mails, the Justice Department alleges, Sterling shared details of sensitive CIA operations against Iran. Among them was a classified effort code-named Merlin that was designed to degrade Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program by sabotaging materials and blueprints being acquired by Iran.
The indictment indicates that Risen planned to write about the program, which Sterling portrayed as deeply flawed. The New York Times did not publish a story, but details about the Merlin operation appeared in Risen's book.
One chapter describes a CIA plan to employ a Russian agent to offer Iran nuclear weapons blueprints that contained fatal flaws. But because the flaws were obvious and possible to overcome, the plan risked providing useful information that could "help Iran leapfrog one of the last remaining engineering hurdles blocking its path to a nuclear weapon," according to the book.
The indictment says that a description of the plan also appeared in drafts of a memoir that Sterling submitted to CIA reviewers. CIA spokesman George Little declined to comment on the case, except to say that the agency "deplores the unauthorized disclosure of classified information."
Federal authorities pressured Risen at least twice to testify before a grand jury investigating the case. Kelley, Risen's attorney, said that the reporter declined to comply and that he does not expect Risen to be called as a witness if there is a trial.
According to the indictment, Sterling was aware by 2003 that the FBI was investigating him for alleged illegal disclosure of classified information. In 2004, he filed for bankruptcy protection, listing debts of $150,000.
Sterling was arrested Thursday in St. Louis. U.S. officials said he will remain in custody pending a detention hearing scheduled for Monday. He faces six charges of unauthorized disclosure and retention of national defense information, each carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. Potential penalties on the remaining four charges include a 20-year prison sentence and a fine of up to $250,000.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.