The wife of former CIA officer and whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling says she’s concerned about the health of her husband, who was sentenced last year to serve three years in a Colorado prison.
Sterling was convicted of espionage for leaking information to a journalist about a dubious U.S. government operation meant to deter Iran’s nuclear weapons program. He says he didn’t do anything wrong. The prosecution came as part of President Barack Obama’s crackdown on government leaks.
Sterling is set for release in 2018. But his wife, Holly Sterling, told The Colorado Independent by phone from St. Louis, Missouri, that she worries health issues he’s having in prison might mean she’ll never see him on the outside again.
“I’m concerned my husband may die,” she said. “I’m extremely concerned.”
In the past few months, Jeffrey Sterling, 49, who says he has a history of atrial fibrillation, has been “subjected to unresponsive and dismissive medical care” at the Colorado federal correctional institution known as FCI Englewood, according to an Aug. 11 complaint he filed. Holly Sterling provided a copy of the complaint to The Independent.
The complaint says Sterling continually suffers chest pressure, shortness of breath, sweating and an uneven heartbeat, but isn’t receiving adequate care, and instead is being told to drink more water. Sterling says he wants outside medical attention. He is asking for his medical records to be transferred from the prison to his wife so she can have them reviewed by a specialist.
FCI Englewood didn’t respond to an email from The Independent, but an executive assistant at the prison told Holly Sterling in writing that all medical problems for which her husband has sought care “have been appropriately addressed and treated.” Holly Sterling says the prison’s response to her inquiries have contained inaccurate information, such as dates for incidents.
Last year, a jury convicted Jeffrey Sterling of espionage in a federal court when prosecutors accused him of leaking classified information to New York Times reporter and author James Risen. The reporter published government secrets about a failed operation to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program with bogus blueprints in his 2006 book, “State of War.”
Risen fought efforts by the government to force him to reveal his source, including a federal subpoena, and the case against Sterling was largely overshadowed by a First Amendment sidebar involving the journalist. Risen did not testify in the Sterling case.
In their case against Sterling, prosecutors relied on circumstantial evidence, including phone metadata showing the defendant and the journalist had called each other.
From a report about the case in The Intercept:
After a two-week trial that included some CIA witnesses testifying from behind a screen, so that their identities would not be revealed, the jury convicted Sterling, based on what the judge, Leonie Brinkema, described at the sentencing as “very powerful circumstantial evidence.” She added, “In a perfect world, you’d only have direct evidence, but many times that’s not the case in a criminal case.”
Sterling, who was fired by the CIA, said the government was retaliating against him because he unsuccessfully sued the agency for discrimination and because he reached out to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees in 2003 and “gave them my concerns about an operation I was involved in, and I thought it could have an impact, a negative impact, on our soldiers going into Iraq.” He planned to publish a memoir about his work as a black CIA officer from 1993 to 2002, but the agency thwarted that effort.
A jury last January convicted him of nine counts including espionage, and a judge sentenced him to 42 months in prison.
The Washington Post called the case against Sterling “perhaps the greatest courtroom success of a presidential administration that has pursued more leak cases than all of its predecessors combined, and one that could have lasting impact.”
Some left-wing figures, publications and groups have rallied around Sterling’s conviction as a cause célèbre that highlights the U.S. government’s leniency toward higher-ranking offenders like former CIA director David Petraeus who got probation and a fine for leaking state secrets to his mistress. The Nation magazine, Reporters Without Borders, and the Center for Media and Democracy have called for Obama to pardon Sterling.
Prior to Sterling’s sentence last year, Judith Ehrlich produced a mini-documentary about his ordeal called The Invisible Man. The Intercept published a detailed piece about his conviction titled “Jeffrey Sterling took on the CIA and lost everything.”
Now, Sterling’s health in the Colorado prison where he’s serving time has made its way into the state’s U.S. Senate race.
Arn Menconi, the Green Party’s nominee, has been in touch with Holly Sterling and plans to hold a vigil Tuesday, Aug. 16 at 5 p.m. outside the Englewood prison where he’ll fast for 24 hours. He said he does not believe Sterling should be in jail, and that the inmate needs to see a cardiologist to address his health concerns.
“Americans should know that President Obama has indicted more whistleblowers than any president in history and this is to send out a signal so that others working in security will not come out and reveal what our government is doing,” the candidate says.
Menconi, who produced an audiobook with Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, says part of the reason why he’s running for U.S. Senate is because of his country’s “endless wars,” military intervention and indictments of whistleblowers.
“These are my friends,” he told The Independent about whistleblowers like Ellsberg, Sterling, and former CIA officer John Kiriakou. “These are the guys that have revealed to me the lies and injustice.”
FCI Englewood is a low-security prison that Forbes magazine a decade ago called one of the best places to serve time because prisoners could “blow off steam by playing pool, ping-pong or even foosball.”
But, “despite what people think … it’s not the lap of luxury,” Holly Sterling says of the prison.
She says she speaks to her husband every morning by phone, and is able to email with him, but has to send him around $300 per month to pay for the ability to do so.
A social worker with a modest income, Holly Sterling says she has also been able to visit her husband once a month only because of donations from a GoFundMe crowdsourcing campaign set up by a family member.
Photo credit: Amanda Slater, Creative Commons, Flickr