By Norman Solomon
Yes, I saw the glum faces of prosecutors in the courtroom a few days ago, when the judge sentenced CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling to three and a half years in prison -- far from the 19 to 24 years they’d suggested would be appropriate.
Yes, I get that there was a huge gap between the punishment the government sought and what it got -- a gap that can be understood as a rebuke to the dominant hard-line elements at the Justice Department.
And yes, it was a positive step when a May 13 editorial by the New York Times finally criticized the extreme prosecution of Jeffrey Sterling.
But let’s be clear: The only fair sentence for Sterling would have been no sentence at all. Or, at most, something like the recent gentle wrist-slap, with no time behind bars, for former CIA director David Petraeus, who was sentenced for providing highly classified information to his journalist lover.
Jeffrey Sterling has already suffered enormously since indictment in December 2010 on numerous felony counts, including seven under the Espionage Act. And for what?
The government’s righteous charge has been that Sterling provided information to New York Times reporter James Risen that went into a chapter of his 2006 book “State of War” -- about the CIA’s Operation Merlin, which in 2000 provided Iran with flawed design information for a nuclear weapon component.
As Marcy Wheeler and I wrote last fall: “If the government’s indictment is accurate in its claim that Sterling divulged classified information, then he took a great risk to inform the public about an action that, in Risen’s words, ‘may have been one of the most reckless operations in the modern history of the CIA.’ If the indictment is false, then Sterling is guilty of nothing more than charging the agency with racial bias and going through channels to inform the Senate Intelligence Committee of extremely dangerous CIA actions.”
Whether “guilty” or “innocent” of doing the right thing, Sterling has already been through a protracted hell. And now -- after he has been unemployable for more than four years while enduring a legal process that threatened to send him to prison for decades -- perhaps it takes a bit of numbness for anyone to think of the sentence he just received as anything less than an outrage.
Human realities exist far beyond sketchy media images and comfortable assumptions. Going beyond such images and assumptions is a key goal of the short documentary “The Invisible Man: CIA Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling,” released this week. Via the film, the public can hear Sterling speak for himself -- for the first time since he was indicted.