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Long-delayed CIA leak trial begins in Virginia

January 14, 2015

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (AP) — A former CIA officer unnecessarily exposed one of the agency’s top assets by leaking details of a covert operation in Iran to a New York Times reporter, prosecutors told a jury Tuesday.

The long-delayed trial of former officer Jeffrey Sterling began in U.S. District Court with jurors receiving a lesson in spycraft from CIA officers — testifying behind a divider wall to shield their identity from the public — who recruited and managed a Russian nuclear expert nicknamed “Merlin.”

Prosecutors say Sterling divulged classified information to journalist James Risen about a plan to have Merlin funnel flawed blueprints to Iran to hurt that nation’s nuclear ambitions.

Defense lawyers countered that the government has no direct evidence proving Sterling was Risen’s source, and that the CIA focused its suspicions on Sterling because he had become an outcast for claiming racial discrimination at the agency.

Sterling, 47, was charged in 2010 but his trial has been delayed for years, largely due to arguments over whether Risen could be forced to testify about his dealings with Sterling.

Ultimately, prosecutors opted against putting Risen on the stand after free-press advocates lobbied Attorney General Eric Holder to avoid a legal showdown that could have ended with the reporter being thrown in jail for contempt of court for refusing to testify about his confidential sources.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Trump said in opening statements Tuesday that Sterling was motivated to spill CIA secrets by greed and bitterness after he filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the CIA and the agency rejected an offer to settle his case for $200,000.

“He struck back with the only weapon he had: secrets, the agency’s secrets,” Trump said.

The first witnesses Tuesday were CIA case officers who described the importance of Merlin as a CIA asset. Merlin and his wife had emigrated from Russia in the early ’90s, and CIA headquarters immediately targeted them as potential treasure troves of information. Both had worked in a Russian plant that assembled and disassembled nuclear weapons.

The information Merlin provided was rated as “outstanding” by CIA headquarters.

Later, the CIA created a plan where Merlin would pose as a disgruntled Russian willing to sell nuclear blueprints to the Iranians. But the blueprints would contain hidden mistakes that render them inoperable, said a case agent, Laurie D. Even Merlin did not know that the blueprints he was peddling were flawed, Laurie D. said.

“That way he would have plausible deniability” if something went awry, she said.

The trial is expected to last more than two weeks and could include government testimony from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

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