Jeffrey Sterling knows the inconvenient truth.
American politicians don’t care about protecting whistleblowers except for when they do.
Until last month, Sterling was possibly the most famous CIA whistleblower in American history. In 2010, Sterling, who lives in O’Fallon, Mo., with his wife, Holly, became one of only five Americans at the time to have ever been charged with espionage under the Espionage Act of 1917. He was accused by the federal government of leaking national secrets to author and journalist James Risen for his bestselling book “State of War.” Despite denials and a circumstantial case, Sterling was convicted and spent about two years in federal prison in Colorado. Earlier this year, his probation ended and he became, for the first time in more than a decade, a truly free man.
His tale began in a very similar fashion as the reported CIA whistleblower who might bring down the presidency of Donald Trump because of his or her damning complaint about the ill-fated call to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that has led to House impeachment proceedings.
Both agents complained about their particular issues first to CIA supervisors.
In Sterling’s case he had issues with the failed “Operation Merlin” in which the CIA was seeking to disrupt Iran’s planned development of nuclear weapons. In the current case, the whistleblower reported that Trump had asked the Ukrainian president to investigate a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential Democratic candidate for president in 2020.
Fearing their complaints fell on deaf ears, both agents then went to Congress.
Sterling took his complaints to the Senate Intelligence Committee during the presidency of Barack Obama. The current whistleblower went to the House Intelliegence Committee.
Here, they share a similar experience.
Under the American system of government, and specific statutes, one of which was strengthened under the leadership of former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill just a few years ago, whistleblowers are supposed to be protected, so those they are complaining about can’t simply retaliate to cover up their potential misdeeds.
That’s not what happens all too often in practice.
“The first thing the CIA did was run to the attorney general and the White House” when the Ukrainian phone call whistleblower came forward, Sterling noted. “That is exactly what happened to me. I went to the Senate Intelligence Committee, and their first stop was the CIA.”
Here, as Sterling outlines in his new book out this month, “Unwanted Spy: The Persecution of an American Whistleblower,” is where their paths diverge.
“In their eagerness to punish someone for their embarrassment,” Sterling wrote, “they looked around for a scapegoat. They found me.”
No doubt, Trump and his enablers are attempting to do the same thing to the president’s whistleblower — and perhaps a second one as well — in the contemporary case. But the media, and Congress, have come to the whistleblower’s aid.
Sterling was hung out to dry.
It’s why he hopes this current episode in American whistleblower history brings attention to the need to better protect those in government who put their lives, careers and reputations on the line to expose malfeasance.
“I like the attention the political leaders are giving to the concept of protecting whistleblowers,” Sterling said. “But there should be even-handed treatment for all whistleblowers. This is shedding a light on whistleblowing and the protections that are needed. But what about the others? What about Edward Snowden? What about John Kiriakou? What about me.”
Indeed, the traditional path for a whistleblower is a painful one in which the entire power of the local, state or federal government comes down hard on them. Lives are ruined or changed for ever. Whistleblowers become isolated from friends, loved ones and colleagues.
Or, as in the case of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, or Sterling, who dared speak to congressional investigators, they get charged with espionage.
Sterling hopes the most famous whistleblower of the moment doesn’t face those consequences.
“Stay strong,” he urged his compatriot, whomever it may be. “Don’t be intimidated.”
And, perhaps, most important of all, Sterling said, don’t let the president, who has tweeted that his accuser is a “spy” and a “leaker,” define you.
“When the subject of the complaint controls definition of what a whistleblower is,” Sterling said, “then there really are no whistleblowers at all.”