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Imprisoned ex-CIA officer loses appeal of leak conviction

FILE – In this Jan. 26, 2015 file photo, former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling leaves federal court in Alexandria, Va. A federal appeals court on Thursday, June 22, 2017 upheld all but one of the convictions of Sterling, found guilty of leaking government secrets to a reporter. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld a 3 1/2 year prison sentence for a former CIA officer found guilty of leaking government secrets to a reporter.

A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed all but one of Jeffrey Sterling’s convictions and said there was no need for the man to be resentenced.

Sterling was convicted under the Espionage Act in 2015 after being accused of divulging details to New York Times journalist James Risen of a CIA mission aimed at stalling Iranian ambitions to build a nuclear weapon. Sterling maintains he was not Risen’s source.

The operation, described in Risen’s 2006 book “State of War,” involved using a CIA agent nicknamed “Merlin” to deliver flawed nuclear blueprints to Iran in the hopes that they would spend years trying to develop a product that would never work.

Citing anonymous sources, Risen suggested it was a reckless and botched operation that may have actually helped advance the Iranians’ nuclear program. The CIA has strongly disputed that idea.

The 4th Circuit said prosecutors failed to prove that the transfer of a letter detailing information about the program from Sterling to Risen began or happened in the Eastern District of Virginia — where the man was prosecuted.

But the court rejected Sterling’s other arguments and said a “rational jury could have found that Sterling passed along at least some classified information about the program to Risen, who then approached the CIA shortly afterwards.”

Judge William Traxler Jr. wrote that he would have upheld all of Sterling’s convictions.

Sterling, 50, can ask the full 4th Circuit to hear the case.

Edward MacMahon Jr., who represented Sterling at trial, said he was obviously disappointed with the decision, but still believes in Sterling’s innocence.

“I think he has a long and productive life ahead of him when he gets out,” MacMahon said.

Sterling’s attorneys argued that the CIA only charged him because Risen’s story made the CIA look foolish. They say the leak likely came from a Capitol Hill staffer after Sterling shared his concerns about the program with staffers at a Senate intelligence committee in 2003.

After spending years trying to force the reporter to reveal his source, and despite the 4th Circuit’s order compelling him to testify, Risen was never directly asked in court whether Sterling was his leaker.

In the end, prosecutors obtained enough circumstantial evidence by seizing their emails and phone messages to win a conviction.

The government did not have recorded phone calls or emails showing the actual exchange of classified information. During a December hearing, prosecutor Eric Olshan pointed to an email Risen wrote Sterling in 2004, which said “I want to call today. I’m trying to write the story … I need your phone number again.”

Prosecutors argued that Sterling provided the information to Risen in retaliation for multiple grievances he had against the agency. Sterling had unsuccessfully sued the agency for racial discrimination and was upset that the CIA had blocked him from putting certain information in his memoir, prosecutors said.

In a column published Wednesday by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sterling again asserted that he communicated with Risen only about his discrimination case and called his imprisonment “an injustice.”

“My case serves as a warning that basic communication between journalists and government employees, no matter the subject, could be treated as espionage,” Sterling wrote.

Sterling’s prison sentence currently expires in 2018, but his wife said last year that he may be released as early as this December if he maintains good behavior.