The controversial leak investigation of an ex-CIA officer who was a source for a New York Times reporter’s book came to a head yesterday, with the unsealing of an indictment against Jeffrey A. Sterling of Missouri.
The moment marked a return to the spotlight for William M. Welch II, the former Public Integrity Section chief who supervised the bungled prosecution of then-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).
Welch, as senior litigation counsel of the DOJ’s Criminal Division, is leading the government’s pursuit of Sterling of O’Fallon, Mo., who was arrested on Thursday in St. Louis. The former CIA officer was indicted last month on charges that he disclosed restricted information to a journalist — not named, but obviously James Risen of the New York Times — about a clandestine program intended to impede the progress of unnamed countries’ weapons capabilities.
Press freedom advocates have expressed increasing concern about the Obama administration’s pursuit of journalists’ sources, arguing it will have a chilling effect on whistleblowers and others who expose wrongdoing and government mistakes.
In the indictment, which was unsealed on Thursday, Sterling, 43, is charged with six counts of unauthorized disclosure of national defense information, and one count each of unlawful retention of national defense information, mail fraud, unauthorized conveyance of government property and obstruction of justice. If he is convicted, Sterling could be sentenced to 20 years in prison and fined hundreds of thousands of dollars.
As reported in the New York Times, Risen wrote about a CIA attempt to disrupt Iranian nuclear research in his 2006 book, “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.” Risen described the CIA maneuvers as a flawed operation that may have backfired by accidentally helping the Iranians advance their nuclear technology.
Risen has been subpoenaed twice to testify before federal grand juries, once when President George W. Bush was in office and once since Barack Obama became president. Risen has said that he refused to testify and has never provided information to prosecutors. Risen has also said that Judge Leonie M. Brinkema of the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., quashed a subpoena of him in November — itself an unusual development that underlines what could be described as a strange and multi-faceted case.
Sterling had a stormy tenure at the CIA from 1993 to his firing in 2002, clashing with the agency over whether he should be allowed to publish his memoirs and accusing it of discriminating against him because he is black. Assuming that his case goes to trial, those accusations would likely resurface.
And assuming that the case goes to trial, Welch can only hope that it turns out better than the prosecution of Stevens, who was convicted of corruption in 2008 and lost his seat in that year’s election. But the conviction was thrown out after it was disclosed that the prosecution had failed to share some evidence to which the defense was entitled. Although he did not play a major role in the trial, Welch lost his post as head of the DOJ’s public integrity unit over the episode.
Welch has been under investigation since 2009 for criminal contempt of court and possible ethics violations, as are others on the prosecution team. One Stevens team member, Nicholas Marsh, recently committed suicide. (Stevens died in a plane crash in Alaska last year.)
The case against Sterling is also being handled by Trial Attorney Timothy J. Kelly of the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section and Senior Litigation Counsel James L. Trump of the Eastern District of Virginia. The case was investigated by the FBI’s Washington Field Office, with assistance in the arrest from the FBI’s St. Louis Field Office.
This story has been updated.