Jeffrey Sterling, James Risen, and Prosecuting Leakers: Lessons from the Sterling Trial

UPDATE 1/26/15 3:30 pm – the jury has found Sterling guilty on all nine counts.

UPDATE 5/11/15 – the judge today sentenced Sterling to 42 months in prison.

The long legal saga involving former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling is drawing to a close. At this writing his criminal trial has concluded and the jury in Alexandria, Virginia is deliberating.

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Sterling was indicted on multiple counts of violating the Espionage Act and related charges. The government alleges he illegally leaked classified information concerning a covert CIA operation to New York Times reporter James Risen. The program, dubbed “Operation Merlin,” involved using a Russian scientist working with the U.S. to deliver flawed nuclear weapon blueprints to Iran in an attempt to derail their weapons program.

When Risen first received the information the Times honored a government request not to run the story due to national security concerns. Risen, however, later revealed the same information in his book, State of War.

Ever since Sterling was indicted in 2010, a central drama in the case had been the government’s efforts to compel Risen to testify about whether Sterling gave him the classified information. Risen refused to comply with the government’s subpoena, claiming a reporter’s privilege to refuse to identify his source.

The trial judge initially upheld Risen’s privilege claim and the government appealed. Relying on the 1972 Supreme Court case of Branzburg v. Hayes, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled there is no privilege that allows a reporter to refuse to testify in a criminal case. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider Risen’s appeal.

After his appeals were exhausted, Risen continued to say he would go to jail rather than comply with the court order to testify and reveal his source. Shortly before the Sterling case went to trial, the government announced that it would withdraw its subpoena of Risen and would not seek his testimony. The trial proceeded without Risen taking the stand.

So what lessons can be drawn from the Sterling/Risen drama?

DOJ’s Decision to Drop the Risen Subpoena 

The big surprise in the case was the government’s decision to drop the Risen subpoena. Risen was a critical witness, and the case was delayed for nearly four years while the government fought for the right to compel him to testify. Why would you do that if you’re not willing to follow through?

The prosecutors ended up going to trial with one hand tied behind their backs. The best possible witness to the alleged disclosure of classified material – the person to whom it was disclosed – did not have to take the stand. The government was left to put on a circumstantial case relying on evidence of phone calls, e-mails, and details in Risen’s book that allegedly could only have come from Sterling. The prosecutors who fought for years to compel Risen to testify must have felt they had the rug pulled out from under them.

But the truth is the government simply bowed to the inevitable. When Judith Miller of the New York Times was jailed for contempt in 2005 for refusing to testify about her source in the Valerie Plame/CIA leak case, that was in connection with a grand jury investigation. The grand jury could simply be put on hold while waiting to see whether the contempt penalty would convince Miller to change her mind. After 85 days in jail, Miller ultimately did agree to testify in the grand jury after her source, Scooter Libby, released her from her promise of confidentiality.

But the Sterling case involved a trial, not a grand jury investigation. If Risen were called to the stand and refused to testify (as he clearly would have), he could be jailed for contempt but the trial would have to go on. The judge would not, and could not, put the entire trial on hold for weeks or months to see whether Risen came around. And once the case was over, Risen would have to be released; a witness can’t be incarcerated to coerce him to testify when the proceeding where his testimony is required no longer exists.

In the end, therefore, the government would have had to endure all the fallout from jailing a reporter and the prosecution still would not have had the benefit of Risen’s testimony. Despite the government’s legal victories, Risen ultimately held all the cards so long as he was willing to go to jail for a few days until the trial was over. Given that reality, it made sense for the government to fold.

The Difficulty in Prosecuting Leak Cases 

The Sterling case highlights the problems with leak cases from a prosecutor’s perspective. First, they are notoriously difficult to investigate. Assuming the leak was to a member of the press, DOJ Guidelines will not allow the prosecutor even to attempt to speak to the only direct witness – the reporter – unless all other possible avenues have been exhausted (and maybe not even then).   That means a difficult investigation trying to identify and interview every potential source of the leak, scouring computers, e-mails and telephone records, and otherwise trying to establish proof sufficient to sustain a conviction with largely circumstantial evidence.

In the rare case where the prosecutor does seek information from the reporter, that effort will almost undoubtedly be met with fierce resistance. There will be a lengthy delay as the reporter, backed by top First Amendment lawyers, litigates whether he or she has a privilege to refuse to testify. Delay is bad for a prosecution: memories fade, witnesses become unavailable, and the case generally gets more difficult to prove.

Finally, if the case ultimately goes to trial, the government will be hamstrung in presenting its case. Matt Zapotosky had a nice piece in the Washington Post last week about the challenges of trying leak cases. To prove a leak of classified information the government has to expose at least some material that, by definition, was not supposed to be public. The Sterling case involved CIA officers testifying behind a screen to protect their identities and certain lines of questioning that were deemed out of bounds due to the restrictions on classified information. The government has to walk a tightrope between proving its case and still protecting the confidential information that led them to bring the case in the first place.

Sometimes these obstacles are insurmountable. In a high-profile embarrassment in 2011, the government was forced to drop felony charges against alleged leaker Thomas Drake after the judge ruled that Drake had to be allowed to reveal certain classified information in order to defend himself. Rather than reveal the information during the trial, the government allowed Drake to plead to a single misdemeanor.

No wonder leak prosecutions are relatively rare and are considered almost a no-win proposition by federal prosecutors.

The Hazards of Relying on Leakers

In his book, Risen claimed that Operation Merlin had been botched and may actually have helped Iran. (This was also Sterling’s view, which is one reason he was suspected to be Risen’s source.) CIA officials at Sterling’s trial painted a very different picture, testifying that the program had been working and that its disclosure damaged our efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear program and may have put the lives of American assets overseas at risk.

It’s probably not surprising that government officials would have a different view of the program. Given its classified nature it may be years, if ever, before we know the full truth. But this does highlight the hazards for journalists of working with a leaker of classified information.

People leak information for all kinds of reasons, some of them noble and some not so noble. The government alleged that Sterling was a disgruntled former CIA employee who had been fired, had filed multiple personnel actions, and had an ax to grind. Such an individual has an incentive to leak information that makes the agency look bad and to slant their disclosures in a certain way.

A prosecutor working with an informant faces an analogous situation. A good prosecutor realizes that an informant may shade the truth or tell outright lies in order to make themselves look less culpable or to try to tell the prosecutors what the informant thinks they want to hear. If I have an informant telling me about a drug operation, I’m going to investigate to death everything they tell me and try to corroborate it with other witnesses and evidence. I don’t ever want to be in a position of having to take just the informant’s word for anything – or to ask a jury to do so. A prosecutor in such a case has to be wary of “falling in love” with his informant and accepting what they say uncritically.

Journalists, too, may “fall in love” with a source. A good journalist will recognize this risk, of course, but his options for corroborating the source are more limited. If a journalist receives illegally leaked classified information, other people are not likely to talk to him about it. He can’t make extensive inquiries without potentially exposing his source. Even if other government officials wanted to provide contrary information or a fuller picture, they may be unable to do so without revealing additional classified material.

When it comes to stories based on classified information there is a risk that a journalist, armed with what appears to be a juicy disclosure, will run a story based on incomplete or even inaccurate information. The journalist may be getting only one perspective and is seeing only what their source wants them to see. A good and professional journalist will do whatever possible to avoid this, but the risks are still there. And of course there are bad and careless journalists out there, just as there are bad and careless prosecutors.

I have no idea where the truth lies concerning Operation Merlin and I’m certainly no apologist for the excesses of the CIA during the “war on terror.” But given the choice between believing Sterling’s account (as reflected in Risen’s book) and that of the career CIA people who testified at his trial, I see no particular reason to believe Sterling. It seems perfectly plausible to me that the program was working and that its disclosure harmed national security. Only the most cynical partisan would argue that, simply because it’s the CIA, the operation must have been flawed and the officials at Sterling’s trial must have been perjuring themselves.

The broader cautionary point is that not all leakers are virtuous whistleblowers interested only in the public good, not all leaks are a good thing or are necessarily truthful, and just because a secret government operation is disclosed in the press doesn’t mean that the press got it right or got the whole story.

NY Times

The Reaction of the Press

 As you might expect, there has been a fair amount of ball-spiking by the media going on since the government dropped the Risen subpoena, with the press praising Risen as a hero and condemning the prosecution. The New York Times wrote an editorial last week called “Lessons of the James Risen Case,” criticizing the Obama administration’s supposed record of “aggressively attacking investigative journalism” and praising journalists like Risen who “stand up” to the government.

As I discussed in a previous post, leak cases are about trying to stop leaks and protect national security, not about attacking journalism. Due to the nature of the cases clashes with the press happen from time to time, but that’s a far cry from saying that journalism itself is under assault. Only a handful of leak cases are brought, and most of those do not involve attempts to subpoena a journalist.

The Times laments that the Risen case resulted in an “atrocious legal precedent” in the Fourth Circuit denying a reporter’s privilege.  But the Fourth Circuit’s decision was not some kind of new, groundbreaking result; it was a relatively straightforward application of Branzburg, the controlling Supreme Court case that the Times neglected to mention.

The Times and others also argue that the Risen incident demonstrates the need for a federal shield law for reporters. Privilege advocates argue that a shield law is essential to ensure that aggressive investigative reporting such as Risen’s will continue. I completely agree about the critical importance of investigative journalism, but this argument always baffles me. The leaks to Risen, as well as all of the leaks over the years concerning things such as Abu Ghraib, secret CIA prisons, Watergate, and so on, took place without a federal shield law. If anything, the fact that leaking has gone on at a robust pace in the absence of a shield law demonstrates that a shield law is unnecessary.

In any event, the proposed shield laws that have been kicking around Congress for the past decade all have contained exceptions where national security is concerned. Congress is understandably not willing to pass a law providing that sensitive classified information may be disclosed to reporters with impunity. Even if a federal shield law were in place, therefore, it likely would not have protected Risen in this case.

There are other significant obstacles to passing a shield law, including how to define who is a “journalist” entitled to the law’s protections. In the end, the Risen case is unlikely to have any significant effect on the long-stalled efforts to get a shield law through Congress.

The press outrage over James Risen and some other recent cases has already prompted the Department of Justice to further tighten the guidelines concerning when a prosecutor may seek information from a reporter. I expect clashes such as the one between Risen and DOJ are going to become even more rare in the future, and leak cases will become even more difficult to prosecute. That may be the real legacy of the Obama administration’s so-called “war on the press.”

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