ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A former CIA officer was sentenced Monday to 3 ½ years in prison for leaking details of a secret mission to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a sentence that was received with a measure of relief from his legal team and paled in comparison to the decades-long term that had been on the table.
Jeffrey Sterling, 47, of O’Fallon, Missouri, had faced federal sentencing guidelines calling for 20 years or more, as well as a push by prosecutors urging a severe sentence for a leak they said hit the nation’s security apparatus at its core.
A jury convicted him in January of telling New York Times journalist James Risen about a classified plan to trick the Iranian government by slipping flawed nuclear blueprints through a Russian intermediary.
The classified operation at the heart of the trial involved using a CIA asset nicknamed Merlin, who had been a Russian nuclear engineer. Merlin traveled to Vienna in 2000 to foist deliberately flawed nuclear-weapons blueprints on the Iranians, hoping they would spend years trying to develop parts that had no hope of ever working.
Risen published details of the Merlin operation in his 2006 book “State of War.”
Sterling was charged in 2010 but the trial was delayed for years, in part because of legal wrangling about whether Risen could be forced to testify. Ultimately, prosecutors chose not to call Risen as a witness, despite winning legal battles allowing them to do so.
Without Risen’s testimony, prosecutors built a circumstantial case against Sterling. They introduced evidence showing regular contact between Risen and Sterling by phone and email.
Prosecutors argued that Sterling was motivated by spite to retaliate against perceived mistreatment at the agency. Sterling, who is African-American, had unsuccessfully sued the agency for racial discrimination.