CIA Veteran Sees Big Hole In Sterling Espionage Conviction
Retired Counterintelligence Officer Claims Intelligence Agency’s Office of Security Dropped the Ball
A former CIA spy manager is raising a serious question about the way the intelligence agency handled the national-security risk raised in the case of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer who was recently convicted on espionage charges for leaking classified information to New York Times reporter James Risen.
Leutrell Osborne is a 27-year veteran of the CIA who as a case officer oversaw spies and assets in 30 countries. He said he befriended Sterling, who like Osborne is African American, during the course of a discrimination lawsuit Sterling initiated against the CIA in 2000. That litigation was ultimately dismissed by the courts in early 2006 due to the government’s national security claims.
“I decided to assist Jeffrey [Sterling] in his discrimination case because I had respect for him because he was a black man, an attorney and a spy manager, and part of the reason I worked at the CIA was so people like him could follow me,” said Osborne, a CIA employee from 1957-1984. [Video: Leutrell Osborne: Black Man in the CIA]
Osborne, who now runs a business-consulting firm, had numerous interactions and conversations with Sterling, which he said should have been of interest to the CIA’s Office of Security in the course of any internal agency investigation of potential classified-information leaks.
However, Osborne said the CIA never contacted him about Sterling, prior to or during the course of the criminal investigation targeting Sterling. That criminal investigation, which led to Sterling’s indictment in 2010, was initiated by at least 2008 — when reporter Risen was first subpoenaed in the case. Osborne also said that, to date, the CIA has not returned a call he made to the agency shortly after Sterling’s conviction in late January.
If the CIA was truly concerned that Sterling was leaking classified information, then the agency should have vetted anyone who had his confidence, particularly current and former CIA personnel, to determine the extent of his alleged espionage activities, Osborne contends.
“The CIA investigated Sterling, and they knew I knew him, or should have known, yet they did not talk to me,” Osborne said. “Is the CIA that incompetent in security? The CIA is supposedly the best security organization in the world, and yet they didn’t care that there were holes in their investigation? That raises a red flag for me.”
A federal court jury in Virginia found Sterling guilty earlier this year on nine criminal counts related to charges that he provided classified documents to Risen sometime between 2001 and 2005 that were made public in a book that the journalist published in early 2006. Risen’s tome, “State of War,” included a chapter detailing a CIA covert plan to derail Iran’s nuclear-weapons development capabilities. Sterling, now 47, was assigned from 1998 to mid-2000 as an operational officer in the unit overseeing that Iran program, dubbed Operation Merlin in court records.
The government’s case against Sterling was made with circumstantial evidence — primarily records of phone calls and emails exchanged between Sterling and Risen between 2003 and 2005, none of which contained a smoking gun proving conclusively that Sterling leaked classified information. Sterling’s lawyers argued that the trail of emails and phone calls dovetailed in time with his discrimination lawsuit against the CIA and dealt with that matter, which Risen had written about in the New York Times previously. In addition, the defense argued that there were a number of other potential sources for Risen’s book, including Senate Select Intelligence Committee staffers, given Sterling in 2003 provided information to them legally as a whistleblower on what he deemed flaws in the covert Iran program.
The Department of Justice engaged in a controversial battle across the Bush and Obama administrations to force Risen to reveal his sources on Operation Merlin. Ultimately, though, the Department of Justice backed down as Sterling’s trial got underway in mid-January and did not call Risen to testify. Government attorneys argue that Sterling was a disgruntled former CIA employee motivated to strike back at the agency and that convictions based on strong circumstantial evidence are not out of the ordinary in the judicial system.
But Osborne’s criticism has more to do with CIA internal procedures than Sterling’s criminal case itself, though he argues that there is some pause for concern that the agency may have pushed the criminal case against Sterling in retaliation for his whistleblowing and discrimination lawsuit against the agency.
Attorney Mark Zaid, who represented Sterling in the discrimination case, said Osborne “gave media interviews” during the course of Sterling’s discrimination litigation, including for national outlets such as CNN, “and was very supportive of Jeff [Sterling],” though he never testified in the case. Osborne said the CIA certainly was aware of his relationship with Sterling, or at least should have been as the world’s premier intelligence agency. In addition, Osborne said he placed a call to the CIA in early February, shortly after Sterling’s conviction, but still has not been contacted by the agency.
Osborne points out that CIA attorneys do not try criminal cases and the CIA itself has no arrest powers. Once a suspect in a classified-information leak is identified, he said, the case is normally turned over to the FBI and Department of Justice attorney’s to pursue via the criminal justice system.
However, that does not absolve the CIA, he said, of conducting its own thorough internal investigation to determine the extent of the leak and how extensive the problem is and what other agency operations might have been affected or compromised. Because he had a relationship with Sterling, the CIA should have had an interest in determining what information was exchanged between them, Osborne said.
The CIA unit responsible for protecting classified information from disclosure, and for investigating such breaches, is the Office of Security.
“That unit [the Office of Security] should have been on the job. I was a potential hole in the security, and yet no one from CIA contacted me,” Osborne stressed. “The Office of Security’s job is to look for the dirty laundry, and possibly share what they find with the FBI. I should have been contacted.”
Osborne said the fact that CIA investigators did not question him prompts a suspicion that Sterling was not the national-security threat the agency portrayed him to be and that some individuals at the CIA may have “manipulated” the Department of Justice into pursuing an espionage case against him. Alternatively, another possible implication of the agency’s failure to vet Osborne is equally troubling. That lapse, he said, points to a potential serious weakness in the CIA’s internal “security protocols” for containing espionage threats.
Dean Boyd, director of the CIA Office of Public Affairs, when asked about Osborne’s allegations, provided the following response via email:
“The criminal investigation of Jeffrey Sterling and his unauthorized disclosure of classified information was conducted by the FBI. The criminal prosecution was handled by the Department of Justice. As you may know, determinations on potential witnesses or interviews to be conducted in connection with a criminal investigation and prosecution are the purview of the FBI and Department of Justice.”
When asked in a follow-up email to address the specific concern Osborne raised about the failure of CIA investigators to contact him as part of the agency’s internal security protocols, Boyd replied: “We have no further information for you.”
“There are valleys between DOJ, FBI and the CIA,” Osborne said. “CIA uses DOJ attorneys for criminal cases, but it doesn’t’ make sense that CIA did not contact me or that DOJ should have handled that,” given any compromise of classified information potentially threatens broader CIA operations possibly not even known to DOJ. Osborne added that neither the DOJ or FBI contacted him about Sterling — nor did he reach out to them.
“This discussion just accentuates how stupid this situation is,” Osborne added.
For the record, Osborne said Sterling never shared any classified information with him.
“I did not inquire about what he did for the CIA,” Osborne said. “And he had too much respect for me to involve me in his garbage. Sterling never shared with me anything he did clandestinely for the CIA.”
This isn’t the first time the CIA Office of Security has been called out for failing to do its job properly.
In March of last year, US Sen. Dianne Feinstein, then chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), lashed out publicly at the CIA, accusing the agency and its top lawyer of illegally spying on the Senate staff charged with investigating the George W. Bush-era terrorism practices. She accused the CIA of seeking to intimidate the Senate committee by asking the Justice Department to investigate those same staffers based on what she described as “inaccurate information” provided to the Justice Department.
Although Feinstein did not then publicly identify the CIA lawyer she accused of helping to orchestrate the alleged attack on the Senate staff — via his referral of charges to DOJ — White House spokesman Jay Carney subsequently confirmed that it was then-Acting CIA General Counsel Robert Eatinger.
The Senate staff was utilizing secure computers set up by the CIA that allowed them to examine millions of documents to prepare a 6,000-page report on the terrorism-detention and interrogation program. An abbreviated version of that report, some 500 pages long and released in December of last year, determined the CIA’s use of torture to obtain information from suspects held in secret prisons didn’t work, yet the agency lied repeatedly in claiming it was effective.
In the course of preparing their report for Feinstein’s committee, the CIA alleges the Senate staffers illegally hacked into the agency’s computers to obtain information — creating the basis for Eatinger’s request for a DOJ criminal investigation. Senate staffers maintain the information in question was contained in trove of records made available to them by CIA for examination.
A five-member CIA Accountability Board, which included three CIA officials, was assembled to investigate the matter and determined in findings issued this past January that CIA personnel did nothing illegal, that it was all essentially an honest misunderstanding.
However, Feinstein took issue with the findings of the board and issued a blistering critique.
“Regardless of the extent of the violation or intent of those involved, someone should be held accountable,” she said in a press release published on Jan. 27. “…The CIA IG [Inspector General, in a separate report] found the CIA criminal referral against SSCI staff was based on inaccurate information provided to Acting General Counsel Bob Eatinger by personnel in CIA’s Office of Security. The actions of these individuals were ignored by the CIA Accountability Board, which is shocking and unacceptable.” [Emphasis added.]
So, essentially, a US senator claims the CIA’s Office of Security lied to the Department of Justice as part of an effort to launch a criminal investigation into Senate staffers.
CIA attorney Eatinger, a public focus of Sen. Feinstein’s ire, also was at the heart of some of the alleged abuses involving the Bush-era detention and interrogation program. He was one of the attorneys who provided “legal” sanction for the destruction of 92 videotapes of interrogations of al-Qaida suspects.
In addition, Narco News some five years ago exposed the CIA lawyer Eatinger as an individual accused of providing inaccurate information to a federal court in order to protect CIA turf. Back then, Eatinger was among a small group of CIA attorneys called out by a federal judge in a civil case involving former DEA agent Richard Horn — who claimed CIA and State Department officials illegally spied on him and sabotaged his efforts in the early 1990s to rein in the heroin trade in Burma (now Myanmar).
Horn’s case was hampered for years because it was cloaked under national security restrictions — known as state-secrets privilege and invoked by the CIA in his case. Likewise, that same national-security cloak was invoked in former spy manager Sterling’s discrimination and espionage cases, which meant select information related to his case could be withheld from his attorneys and the jury, or otherwise sanitized, with the judge’s approval — usually easily obtained when the CIA and DOJ are claiming its introduction could threaten US national security.
The judge in Horn’s case — former FISA court member Royce Lamberth — agreed to apply state-secrets privilege because the CIA led the court to believe that a key player in the litigation, former Burma CIA Station chief Arthur Brown, was a covert agent in need of protection.
That false claim resulted in Brown being dismissed as a defendant from the case, per an appeals court ruling in 2007, essentially sabotaging Horn’s case.
It was not until Jan. 31, 2008, when it became clear that Horn’s case would still continue despite Brown’s removal, that CIA officials, in the wake of a supposed internal investigation, finally informed Judge Lamberth that Brown’s covert status had been lifted in 2002 (some six years earlier) and that he was no longer covered by the state-secrets privilege assertion.
Both the federal judge in Horn’s case and Horn’s attorney accused the CIA Office of General Counsel of being complicit in a "fraud on the court" for its failure to inform the court that Brown’s covert status had been lifted. Judge Lamberth later singled out three CIA attorneys, including, Eatinger (currently the CIA’s senior deputy general counsel) as being party to that wrongdoing — a charge Eatinger contested.
In addition to chastising the government for the conspiracy by former CIA Station Chief Arthur Brown and former State Department Chief of Mission Franklin Huddle Jr. that prompted the litigation [in which they were accused of planting spying equipment in Horn’s home in Burma, among other acts), and for the alleged cover-up of Brown’s rolled-back covert status by CIA lawyers that nearly derailed Horn’s lawsuit, Judge Lamberth, in a March 30, 2009, ruling, also references “disturbing evidence in a sealed motion indicating that misconduct occurred in the Inspector General’s offices at both the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency.”
A court pleading filed in the Horn litigation indicates that a former supervisory agent with the State Department Office of Inspector General (OIG) had agreed to testify under oath that an investigative report he prepared in the Horn matter “was rewritten without his knowledge or permission, and his signature forged, and his intended conclusions changed.”
In addition, the former State Department OIG agent, Paul E. Forster, according to the court filing, planned to testify that his “counterpart” at the CIA’s OIG (an individual named Michael E. Grivsky) also was subjected to similar treatment.
After a 15-year battle with the CIA, Horn walked away from his case with a $3 million settlement that was reached out of court in late 2009. A threat by the judge to impose sanctions on Eatinger and others involved in the Horn-case deceptions was eventually dismissed by Judge Lamberth as part of that settlement.
“The CIA, along with the Department of State … attach their crimes and misdeeds to something that they can classify and then claim the states secrets privilege, which they promote as being damn near bulletproof,” Horn recently wrote in an email to Narco News concerning his case. “For example, eavesdropping on me and undermining the DEA Mission was tied to the fact that the presence of the CIA in Burma, indeed any foreign country, is classified. And this despite the fact that the CIA chief of station and his deputy by name were declared to the foreign government to be employees of the CIA in Burma.”
The broad swath of national security was invoked in both Sterling’s discrimination and criminal cases because of his activities as a CIA employee from 1993 until the agency terminated his employment in January 2002.
“Obviously,” Horn continues in his email, “the information classification standards can be very flexible when it suits their purpose. As the CIA chief of station in Burma once told me, ‘Lying is our stock-in-trade.’ “
Sterling is scheduled for sentencing on April 24 and faces up to 100 years in jail.
For access to all past stories by Narco News on the Richard Horn case, go to this link— and also look for the story links at the bottom of the article.