Slideshow: Eight Whistleblowers Charged Under the Espionage Act

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Jeffrey Sterling

Jeffrey Sterling, a former-CIA officer, pleaded not guilty to the charge that he leaked information about a US plan to sabotage Iran’s nuclear operations to Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist James Risen for his book State of War. The book had a chapter on a botched operation to derail Iran’s nuclear ambitions through sabotage, and the Justice Department charged that Sterling had been Risen’s source.

Risen recounts how, in the early 2000s, the CIA sent a Russian nuclear scientist to Iran to leak flawed plans for a nuclear bomb-triggering device in an attempt to set back the country’s efforts to develop a bomb. But the flaw in the bomb plans was so obvious that the Russian scientist spotted it immediately — the scientist then told the Iranians that there was an obvious flaw in the plans so that they would take him seriously. Risen’s source felt the Iranians likely were able to learn from the parts of the plans that weren’t flawed, and that the operation, intended as sabotage, may have in fact brought Iran closer to developing a nuclear weapon.

The CIA had suspected Sterling of leaking information to Risen since 2002, when Risen wrote an article about the effect racial discrimination had on Sterling’s career. In the article, Sterling said he had repeatedly been passed over for advancement because he is black — a superior once told him he was not an ideal spy because “you kind of stick out as a big black guy.” Sterling sued the CIA for racial discrimination in 2000.

After his arrest, Sterling maintained his innocence, and Risen refused to reveal his confidential sources for his book, citing the first amendment in a lengthy affidavit. Risen’s attempts to get courts to quash the government’s most recent subpoena forcing him to testify about his sources was initially successful, but was later reversed by a US District Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court refused to intervene, which means Risen may have to disclose his sources or face jail time. He has vowed to choose jail.

John Light is a reporter and producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
Lauren Feeney is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and multimedia journalist whose work has appeared on air and online at PBS, Al Jazeera English and other outlets. A former producer for Moyers & Company, she was a contributor for PBS' Need to Know and led web teams for Wide Angle and Women, War & Peace. She is a graduate of Bard College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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