January 11, 2018

US - RSF hails upcoming release of Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling to halfway house

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) hails the upcoming release of CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling from prison to a halfway house on January 16, ahead of the original end date of his 3.5 year prison sentence on June 14, 2018.

Jeffrey Sterling has spent the last 2.5 years in a Colorado prison after he was convicted in 2015 of seven counts of espionage by a district court in Eastern Virginia for simply being in communication with a reporter. Sterling was accused of offering New York Times journalist James Risen classified national defense information regarding Operation Merlin, a top-secret CIA operation that targeted Iran’s nuclear program which Risen described in his book, State of War. During Sterling’s trial, the Department of Justice was unable to present any direct evidence proving that he divulged classified information to Risen. They relied on circumstantial evidence -- emails and telephone conversations -- to try to make a case to a jury who would likely favor his conviction. Because he utilized proper channels and informed the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence of his concern for the safety of the American people, RSF considers Sterling to be a whistleblower and has been supporting his case.

We welcome the forthcoming release of Jeffrey Sterling into a halfway house, but hope that he can be reunited with his family soon,” said North America Director Margaux Ewen. “His conviction was a breach of First Amendment protections. Simply being in contact with a journalist does not amount to espionage and should not incur imprisonment.

“I am excited my beloved husband Jeffrey is transitioning to a halfway house, while being anxious that he does not remain there until June,” said Holly Sterling, Jeffrey’s wife. “We maintain hope that we can begin the arduous journey of rebuilding our life that the government vehemently destroyed. Jeffrey’s legacy is now branded with the scarlet letter of being a supposed traitor to his country -- the country he still loves.”

President Barack Obama’s administration notoriously prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined. During this eight years in office, Obama prosecuted eight whistleblowers under the Espionage Act for leaking secrets, including Sterling and fellow whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Unfortunately, President Trump has made clear in the first year of his presidency that he believes both whistleblowers and journalists should be prosecuted for leaking or publishing classified information, thus continuing what his predecessor started. This has been evidenced in the current Attorney General, Jeff Sessions’ repeated refusal to promise protections for journalists safeguarding their sources, and his announcement in November that his office had twenty-seven ongoing leak investigations. Less than six months into Trump’s term, former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Reality Winner was arrested and charged with gathering, transmitting, or losing defense information under the Espionage Act. The government’s charges came shortly after online news outlet The Intercept published a story featuring a leaked NSA document showing Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Due in part to President Obama’s harsh crackdown on whistleblowers, the United States fell two places during the course of the past year and now ranks 43rd out of 180 countries on RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.