DOJ Doesn’t Want You To Think CIA Doctored Evidence in the Sterling Trial

On October 4, 2011 (just before Jeffrey Sterling’s trial was originally due to start) the government submitted a motion that, in part, sought to prevent Sterling from presenting “any evidence or any argument that the CIA has manipulated documents.” The motion presented the crazypants idea that the CIA might alter or destroy documents as part of a conspiracy theory that the CIA wanted to blame Sterling for leaks others had made.

There is absolutely no evidence that the CIA was out to get the defendant, or that the CIA orchestrated some grand conspiracy to blame the defendant for the leaks to Risen. Any arguments or comments that the CIA engages in misconduct or has manipulated documents or evidence in order to blame the defendant for the disclosure of national defense information appearing in Chapter 9 lacks any merit and will needlessly send the Court, the parties, and the jury down an endless Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit hole.

Sterling’s lawyers were nonplussed by this demand. “Documents will be admitted if they are authenticated and otherwise admissible.”

Now, if DOJ were writing about most governmental agencies, you might interpret this request as no more than prosecutorial caution, an effort to exclude any hint of the other things the same motion tried to exclude — things like selective prosecution.

Except the CIA is not most governmental agencies.

Indeed, it is an agency with a long and storied history of serially destroying evidence. The Eastern District of VA US Attorney’s Office knows this, too, because they have so much experience reviewing cases where CIA has destroyed evidence and then deciding they can’t charge anyone for doing so.

And while I don’t expect Judge Leonie Brinkema of CIA’s own judicial district to therefore deny the CIA the presumption of regularity, I confess DOJ’s concern that Sterling might suggest CIA had doctored or destroyed evidence makes me pretty interested in what evidence they might have worried he would claim CIA doctored or destroyed, because with the CIA, I’ve learned, it’s usually a safer bet to assume they have doctored or destroyed evidence.

Especially given the two enormous evidentiary holes in the government’s case:

  • The letter to the Iranians Merlin included with his newspaper-wrapped nuclear blueprints
  • A report of Merlin’s activities in Vienna

As I lay out below, CIA’s story about the letter to the Iranians is sketchy enough, though the government’s ultimate story about it is at least plausible. But their story about Merlin’s non-existent trip report is sketchier still. I think the evidence suggests the latter, at least, once did exist. But when it became inconvenient — perhaps because it provided proof that Bob S lied in the cables he wrote boasting of Mission Accomplished — it disappeared.

But not before a version of it got saved — or handed over to — James Risen.

If I’m right, one of the underlying tensions in this whole affair is that a document appeared, verbatim, in Risen’s book that proved the CIA (and Bob S personally) was lying about the success of the mission and also lying about how justifiable it would be to have concerns about the operation.

The CIA and DOJ went to great lengths in this trial to claim that the operation was really very careful. But they never even tried to explain why the biggest evidence that it was anything but has disappeared.

Merlin’s letter to the Iranians

I’ve noted before that the FBI admits it never had a copy of the letter the government convicted Sterling of leaking to James Risen. “You don’t have a copy of the letter” that appears in Risen’s book, Edward MacMahon asked Special Agent Ashley Hunt. “Not in that exact form,” she responded.

Nevertheless, Count 2, Count 3, and Count 5 all pertain to a letter that appears in Risen’s book, the letter FBI never found. The letter appears at ¶¶ 58 to 63 of the exhibit version of the chapter in question.

To be sure, FBI did obtain versions of this letter, as cables introduced at trial reflect. The first iteration appears in Exhibit 30 (a cable describing a November 4, 1999 meeting), and discussions of the revisions process appears in Exhibit 33 (a cable describing a December 14, 1999 meeting). Exhibit 35 — dated January 12, 2000 and describing a January 10 meeting between Sterling and Merlin — provides the closest version to what appears in Risen’s book, in what is called (in Exhibit 36) the fifth iteration of the letter. The only difference (besides the signature line, presumably, according to the CIA’s currently official story) is the January 12, 2000 cable, based on a meeting that took place 7 weeks before Merlin left for Vienna, said this:

So I decided to offer this absolutely real and valuable basic information for [Iranian subject 2], about this possible event.

Whereas in Risen’s book that passage appears this way:

So I decided to offer this absolutely real and valuable basic information for free now and you can evaluate that. Also I sent e-mail to inform [the Iranian professor] about this possible event.

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