ALEXANDRIA, Va. – A judge held a secret hearing Tuesday in the prosecution of a former CIA operative accused of leaking government secrets about Iran to a New York Times reporter, a case where prosecutors are asking for permission to present secret evidence to a jury and also want to keep other government secrets out of public view.
Secrecy is the watchword in the case against Jeffrey Sterling of O'Fallon, Mo., who prosecutors say was a key source of classified leaks for reporter James Risen's 2006 book State of War. The book includes a chapter that details an apparently botched CIA effort to sabotage Iran's nuclear program by supplying flawed blueprints through a Russian intermediary.
Sterling served on the Iranian desk at the CIA and handled Iranian spies who had defected to the United States.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema closed Tuesday's pretrial hearing to the public, even though several of the motions that were scheduled to be discussed had been debated openly in court papers. As a result, even Sterling's wife was barred from the courtroom.
Some level of secrecy is normal and even expected in cases where classified information could be disclosed. A federal law, the Classified Information Procedures Act, governs the process for deciding how to balance a defendant's right to see the evidence against him and the government's right to protect its secrets.
But in the Sterling case, defense lawyers argue that prosecutors' demands for secrecy and restrictions on the disclosure of classified information go far beyond established precedent and wouls wrote in court papers filed last week.
Prosecutors also said they do not know for certain at this point whether they will need to invoke the silent witness rule.
The Obama administration has used espionage statutes to pursue cases against five alleged government leakers, including Sterling, more than any of Obama's recent predecessors.
The government's inability to present its case without disclosing secrets can severely crimp its ability to prosecute those cases. Earlier this year, the government struck a plea bargain with a National Security Agency executive accused of leaking classified information to Baltimore Sun reporter and dropped its most serious charges. The plea deal, which resulted in a sentence of probation, came shortly after a judge refused to allow prosecutors to use unclassified summaries of evidence in place of actual documents that they believed would disclose NSA technology if made public at trial.
Prosecutors in the Sterling case were already dealt a blow earlier in this case when Brinkema effectively quashed a subpoena issued to Risen. Brinkema ruled that Risen can only be compelled to testify about perfunctory matters like confirming he is the author of the book in question. Prosecutors have asked the judge to reconsider her ruling.