A former CIA operative agreed Monday to be returned to Virginia to face felony charges that he disclosed confidential documents to a New York Times reporter in retaliation for what he considered mistreatment by the spy agency.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Terry Adelman ordered Jeffrey Sterling, 43, to remain held without bond pending a full detention hearing in Virginia once federal marshals escort him back there by commercial jet. He has been jailed since his arrest last week in St. Louis.
The indictment did not say specifically what information was leaked, but the dates and other details indicate the case centered on leaks to James Risen, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times. His 2006 book "State of War" revealed details about the CIA's covert spy war with Iran.
Risen's lawyer, Edward McMahon, has refused to discuss whether Sterling was a source. Risen did not cooperate with the investigation, and McMahon on Monday refused to divulge whether Risen was the recipient of any classified documents.
The indictment signaled the latest move in an aggressive Obama administration push to quell leaks, even as the administration has supported proposed legislation that would shield reporters from having to identify their sources. The administration recently arrested an Army private on charges of leaking a classified 2007 videotape of a helicopter attack in Iraq to the website WikiLeaks and charged a former National Security Agency official with leaking information about NSA mismanagement to The Baltimore Sun.
It was not immediately clear how quickly Sterling, of the St. Louis suburb of O'Fallon, might get to Virginia to face the 10-count December indictment made public last week. He recently had one of his knees replaced and walked with a noticeable limp Monday in court. Adelman agreed with a defense request that Sterling not fly until it's deemed medically safe.
McMahon did not enter a plea on Sterling's behalf but has told The Associated Press that his client "always maintained he was innocent throughout this entire investigation."
"Now we're obviously going to prove it to a jury. We're certainly prepared to do that, no matter what it takes," McMahon said.
McMahon declined to comment to reporters in an elevator after Monday's four-minute hearing, during which Sterling appeared in shackles and orange jail garb. The defendant answered politely twice to questions from Adelman but otherwise sat silent. Before the hearing, Sterling sprawled his arms across the defense table, his head bowed, and conferred with McMahon.
Between the time Sterling joined the CIA in 1993 and when he was fired in 2002, Sterling worked on the agency's Iran Task Force as an operations officer, handling a human asset while involved in a clandestine program meant to prevent Iran and other countries from obtaining nuclear weapons.
In 2000, he was assigned to New York, where former CIA officials say he had multiple chances to salvage his career. But Sterling slowly became disgruntled and saw his future as a spy fade before he filed a complaint against the CIA, claiming racial discrimination and demanding a settlement. The CIA balked, and he later sued unsuccessfully.
Federal prosecutors say Sterling devised a scheme to disclose classified information to get back at the CIA, reaching out to Risen in 2001 while still employed at the spy agency. Later, Risen would write a story for the newspaper about Sterling's lawsuit and also established for readers — and prosecutors, for that matter — that the former CIA officer knew about sensitive Iranian operations. The 2002 story did not contain anything classified.
But in April 2003, Risen informed the CIA he was working on a story that prosecutors claim was based on a Sterling-provided classified document about the clandestine program. Later that month, during a meeting U.S. officials had with Risen and his bosses about the article, Risen "stated in so many words that he possessed a copy of a classified document relating" to the clandestine program, according to the indictment. The FBI immediately started investigating.
In May 2003, the newspaper decided not to publish Risen's article after government officials claimed it would harm national security and endanger an asset's life.
The next month, the FBI informed Sterling he was being investigated. Risen later included the material in a chapter of his book, "State of War," claiming the clandestine program was a failure and actually enhanced Iran's weapons capabilities. Part of the plan involved using a Russian scientist who had defected and gave the Iranians flawed blueprints for a nuclear bomb-triggering device.
Despite the flaw, the book alleges, the Iranians still managed to extract valuable information. Risen wrote that the Russian was "the front man for what many have been one of the most reckless operations in the modern history of the CIA, one that may have helped put the nuclear weapons in the hands of a charter member of what President George W. Bush has called the 'axis of evil.'"
Sterling, who is black, claimed in his 2002 lawsuit against the CIA's director and 10 employees that his white supervisors racially discriminated against him for much of his career and blocked key assignments that would have allowed him to advance within the agency. Trained to recruit Iranians as spies, Sterling said he was fired after refusing an assignment.
The CIA denied that race was a factor in his dismissal but declined to discuss other specifics.
A federal judge dismissed the case on grounds that the litigation would require disclosure of highly classified information. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 rejected without comment Sterling's quest to reinstate the lawsuit.
When arrested last week, Sterling had worked since mid-2004 as a senior investigator for health insurer Wellpoint Inc., sniffing out fraud in the company that runs Blue Cross Blue Shield plans in 14 states. Wellpoint is the largest commercial health insurer based on membership.
Associated Press Writer Adam Goldman contributed to this report from Washington.