Jeffrey Sterling was a man without a country.
It was May 2016 and the former CIA spy was watching television in the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colorado. He was in the black TV room.
In prison, Sterling says, everything was segregated. There was a black TV room, a white TV room, a Hispanic TV room.
Sterling is a Missouri native. He wanted to watch the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference finals. Some of his fellow inmates were upset that a black man wanted to watch hockey.
This is the story of Sterling’s life. Growing up in a poor, black neighborhood in Cape Girardeau as the youngest son of an unloving mother, wanting to go to college, maybe even law school, Sterling wasn’t black enough.
In the CIA, he wasn’t white enough.
In 2015 Sterling was convicted of violating the Espionage Act for allegedly leaking classified information to New York Times reporter James Risen about a mission in Iran to disrupt the development of nuclear technology. The case made Risen famous. Sterling became the Unwanted Spy.
That’s the name of his book, due out Oct. 15, about his life, his time in the CIA, and his trial, in which the government didn’t produce any direct evidence of that which Sterling maintains he didn’t do.
“The only thing that the government proved beyond a reasonable doubt,” says the man with a law degree from Washington University, “is that I was black.”
To be sure, he complained to the Senate Intelligence Committee about what he believed was a botched and ill-fated mission, after his reports to CIA higher-ups fell on deaf ears. And he had previously filed a discrimination lawsuit against the CIA which wasn’t allowed to go to trial for national security reasons.
Today, he’s back home, living in O’Fallon, Missouri, with his wife, Holly, their two cats, and a sense of freedom that he can’t yet put into words. As of Wednesday, he is no longer on probation, has no travel restrictions, doesn’t need to ask the federal government for permission for anything.
“I’m still adjusting,” Sterling says. “It’s been so long.”
Indeed, he’s been under a dark cloud of suspicion since he first sought redress for discrimination in 2000. Sterling filed a lawsuit in 2001, was fired shortly thereafter, and became one of numerous targets under the administration of President Barack Obama to be prosecuted for alleged leaks to the press.
For Sterling, the episode was yet another in a long line of situations where he found himself on the outside, a man without an identity, a proud black man reaching for the American Dream and being blocked from it at every turn. That struggle for an identity, for a country — even his own family — to accept him, is a recurring theme in his book, some of which he wrote while in prison.
“It’s an American story,” Sterling says. “It’s one man’s journey through the shades of America.”
It’s not a journey that took Sterling where he thought he’d end up.
He joined the CIA after answering an ad in the Post-Dispatch. He learned Farsi and thought he was prepared to be a successful case officer overseas. Then he ended up being given a “cover” by the agency, he writes in his book, that didn’t allow him access to the diplomatic circles where he could be successful. As all the white officers at his level got more typical diplomatic covers, he asked over and over again for the agency to put him in a position to be successful. It never happened.
So he sued, knowing full well the power of the American government was going to come down on him.
“All I know how to do is fight and stand up for myself,” he says. “I would not have been able to look myself in the mirror if I didn’t.”
He lost his job. He and his first wife lost a baby. She left him.
He came back to Missouri, met Holly, found a job he liked, and then the CIA put his life on hold, seeking a scapegoat for one embarrassing chapter in Risen’s bestselling “State of War.”
“My biggest fear growing up was that I didn’t want to go to prison,” he says. “That’s where I ended up.”
He didn’t fit in there, either.
Not black enough. Not white enough. Not free enough.
But it was there, also, that he reconnected with the goodness of America that today gives him hope. Due in part to Holly’s advocacy for him — she’s the reason I knew about his case and wrote about him in September 2015 — people from all over the country corresponded with Sterling. They sent him books, letters and cards; they told him about their lives and helped him deal with the daily monotony of prison.
“The America I thought didn’t exist came to me in prison,” Sterling says.
It’s a hopeful turn to a story for which the ending has yet to be written.