Coverage from the Jeffrey Sterling Trial

I’m covering the beginning of the Jeffrey Sterling trial this week with This post lays out the opening arguments from yesterday, showing how circumstantial the government’s case is. More interesting, if I do say so myself, is this post on how one of the CIA officers who testified yesterday started losing his cool as matters got to James Risen’s book.

Zach W — the third CIA officer, who played a key role in setting up Operation Merlin before he handed the Russian off to Sterling — came off less impressively. Because the public had no visual cues because he (like the other two officers) testified behind a screen, his voice and overly-helpful answers recalled Vizzini, the Princess Bride character who dies in a battle of wits. The government used Zach W to explain how Operation Merlin came about, to get him to deny having spoken with James Risen, and to disclaim any concerns about the operation, But on cross-examination, he hurt the government’s case in three ways:

  • He presented contradictory evidence about the Russian’s knowledge of the blueprints dealt to Iran
  • His demeanor started crumbling when the defense pointed out where he’d fit in Risen’s book
  • The defense demonstrated that in both functional position and language, Zach W was a closer fit to the focalization and language used in Risen’s book than Sterling is


Zach W’s demeanor started as very confident and overly helpful. He always answered “yes” or “correct” to questions, and at one point got ahead of the prosecution’s questions, leading the defense to object. As someone who had been in the CIA since the 1980s, he had the air of telling how hard things used to be before Google.

But his confident demeanor started crumbling soon after the cross examination started. The government had ended its questioning by asking if he knew Risen. “I know who he is, I never talked to him,” Zach W answered. When asked again if he had ever talked to him, he answered, no, twice.

Then under cross-examination, the defense got him to repeat his description of how he worked with the Russian to make himself available to Iranians by sending letters. When Zach W was asked if he sent the Russian to conferences, he said he was reluctant to say without material in hand to check. The defense then asked when he read the book. Zach W sighed audibly. They walked through the passage describing a case officer working with the Russian to reach out to the Iranians. In response to a question about that, Zach W answered, for the first time, “mmm hmmm.” “I’m sorry, you have to say yes or no,” Judge Brinkema responded. You are that case officer being referenced, the defense asked. “To some degree it does,” Zach W responded, “it seems more precise in targeting, just saying.”

Then the defense led Zach W through how the blueprints were discussed, either as “blueprints,” “firing set,” or “fire set”  in the CIA cables and the book. “Firing set is something you’d use,” the defense asked after getting Zach W to say he didn’t know how the Russian described the part. “That’s what we were talking about,” Zach W responded. The defense pointed to another instance, “fire ring set.” For the second time, Zach W answered, “mmm hmmm.” “You have to say yes or no,” Judge Brinkema reminded again.

After laying out all the cables Zach W had written that use the same language that appears in the book, the defense then turned to the cable Zach W wrote about the meeting in San Francisco. He pointed to the description of Sterling, the Russian, and his wife, going to wine country. This was something the prosecution had said only Sterling knew about. When asked if the cable talked about wine country, Zach W once again answered “mmm hmmm.”

Today’s main witness, Bob S, tried to explain that Zach W would have had no way of knowing that the wine country trip went to Sonoma, though (as I’ll write later) he was not at all credible on that front.

Thus far, the government’s main witnesses aren’t coming off all that impressively.

6 replies
  1. bloopie2 says:

    I’m following on, thank you. I like how you clearly delineate the arguments, the back and forth, discussing separately each individual point of evidence, and, most importantly, laying out the significance of each item. The latest post – “here’s a list of three weaknesses, here’s why they are significant” – is an exemplar of expository writing at its best.

  2. scribe says:

    In other words, the minute the government’s case gets exposed to the greatest truth-finding engine known – cross-examination – it starts going to shit.
    For those in the audience who didn’t already know, this is why the government has been so assiduous in avoiding judicial review of any of its terrorism- or security-related … assertions …. They won’t hold up before cross-examination.

    • Peterr says:

      Crumpling in the face of cross-examination? You mean like Prince Humperdinck when confronted by Westley (aka The Dread Pirate Roberts) in Princess Buttercup’s chambers . . .

      [Prince Humperdinck draws his sword]
      Prince Humperdinck: First things first, to the death.
      Westley: No. To the pain.
      Prince Humperdinck: I don’t think I’m quite familiar with that phrase.
      Westley: I’ll explain and I’ll use small words so that you’ll be sure to understand, you warthog faced buffoon.
      Prince Humperdinck: That may be the first time in my life a man has dared insult me.
      Westley: It won’t be the last. To the pain means the first thing you will lose will be your feet below the ankles. Then your hands at the wrists. Next your nose.
      Prince Humperdinck: And then my tongue I suppose, I killed you too quickly the last time. A mistake I don’t mean to duplicate tonight.
      Westley: I wasn’t finished. The next thing you will lose will be your left eye followed by your right.
      Prince Humperdinck: And then my ears, I understand let’s get on with it.
      Westley: WRONG. Your ears you keep and I’ll tell you why. So that every shriek of every child at seeing your hideousness will be yours to cherish. Every babe that weeps at your approach, every woman who cries out, “Dear God! What is that thing,” will echo in your perfect ears. That is what to the pain means. It means I leave you in anguish, wallowing in freakish misery forever.
      Prince Humperdinck: I think you’re bluffing.
      Westley: It’s possible, Pig, I might be bluffing. It’s conceivable, you miserable, vomitous mass, that I’m only lying here because I lack the strength to stand. But, then again… perhaps I have the strength after all.
      [slowly rises and points sword directly at the prince]
      Westley: DROP… YOUR… SWORD!
      Prince Humperdinck: [Humperdinck’s mouth hangs open, drops sword to floor]

      The witness believes he holds all the cards, until the well-prepared attorney calls his bluff.
      Marcy, enough with Vizzini and the hired help. When will they call Count Rugen and Prince Humperdinck to the stand?

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