A Whistleblower’s Return To The World.

By Jeffrey Sterling: Progressive Hub

This was to be my first trip abroad in a very long time, certainly the first time since being released from prison.

I had a palpable sense of nerves approaching the day I was to travel to Perugia for the International Journalism Festival. I was invited by Kathleen McClellan and Jesselyn Radack of WHISPeR who were invited to present on the impact of leak prosecutions on the free press. I was certainly honored to be asked, but those emotions of gratitude were quickly becoming overcome by not very slight feelings of dread.

This was to be my first trip abroad in a very long time, certainly the first time since being released from prison. Since January 2018, I had taken several trips domestically, but traveling abroad was a whole different animal for me. No one is ever told they are on a “no fly” list, you find out when it’s too late to do anything about it. Funny how the govt is insistent on keeping those whose rights are being taken away ignorant of the fact that their rights have been taken away. Not having tested my viability to leave the country, I had to wonder if my right to travel had been restored like my right to vote. Of course, I had already had such an experience.

After being released in 2018, I immediately started taking whatever steps I could to regain at least some of what I had lost after being convicted of violating the Espionage Act and spending time in prison. One thought I had was that having a passport would give a sense of freedom I hadn’t had throughout the long, exhaustive legal ordeal. At least knowing I had the ability to travel like I used to was worth whatever difficulties I had to go through to get to that point. Always skeptical, I did exhaustive “research” (ala Google) and I confirmed with my probation officer about my ability to apply for a passport. I was told that there were no “holds” on my ability to get a passport. Someone forgot to tell the passport office at the Dept of State.

Having not received my passport after the stated waiting period (and actually giving it an additional week), I reached out to the passport office to inquire about the status of my passport. I was told that there was a “hold.” The subsequent, unsigned letter from the State Department was even less helpful. It made an outdated reference to an ancient court order (going at least back to 2011 when I was arrested) requiring me to gain permission to travel. Obviously the State Department opted to remain ignorant of my status and denied my application. But, they did graciously inform me of an appeals process and the fact that the application fee I paid was nonrefundable.

I guess I could have left it alone and resolved myself to not having a passport, not having even a scintilla of the freedom I once had, but I’ve never been one to settle. I once again reached out to my probation officer and let her know that someone somewhere still considered me a threat to national security. It took months of back and forths with various probation officers, a motion filed with the court to release my old passport from its vault and a blessing that I could get a new one, another application (and fee), unknown State Department officials, and inestimable patience, but I finally received my passport in the mail in mid-2019. It took another struggle, but I prevailed.

Back to the present, even with a passport, I never thought I’d be able to take a trip like this ever again; an exhaustive legal ordeal and prison can drain possibility out of your spirit. But, life is funny. Just when I was thinking nothing that I had would be possible again, doors from unexpected directions open. I was going to Italy!

I was absolutely nervous about making the trip to Italy, I didn’t even try to convince myself otherwise. I couldn’t help wondering if, despite being able to get a passport, if I was on some sort of “no fly” list or if there remained some sort of “hold” on me that would prevent me from leaving the US. The time was fast approaching to see what my status was.

STL airport is rarely busy and I was thankful to have that convenience instead of a long wait before getting bad news. The first time I had to present my passport was when checking my bag. I nervously handed it over trying to gird myself for a quizzical look from her if something were to pop up on her screen. She looked at my document and handed it quickly back to me. “Oh no, here it comes” pounded through my mind but it was quickly tempered when she noted that I hadn’t signed my passport. What an idiot! I went through so much to get the damned passport, I forgot to sign it!

That self-imposed fiasco was brief and I felt could be a possible prelude of what was to come because I still had security to go through. Despite my apprehensions, there were no issues with security in STL nor boarding the international flight in Chicago. I never felt so grateful being able to settle my 6’4” frame into a cramped coach seat on a fully packed flight in my life.

The amount of relief I felt when actually sitting on the plane awaiting departure was tremendous. But, just when you feel relief at passing one obstacle, you can’t help but anticipate the next one. The imagination can be a killer. Shortly into the 8 plus hour flight, I was racked with whether I would be allowed into Italy. In addition, even if I was allowed into the country, I was reminded of what happened to fellow Espionage Act brother in arms, Thomas Drake. In 2021 he was slated to speak at a security conference in Australia only to be “disinvited” at the last minute. Whomever made the decision, and for whatever reason, his voice was effectively silenced, at least at that conference. I just had to continually tell myself that nothing like that had occurred at any of my other speaking engagements and it wasn’t going to happen on this trip.

It wasn’t until I checked into my hotel room that I let out one of the biggest exhales of my life. Passport control at Fiumicino airport in Rome was a non-issue, I was herded through just like everyone else and no blaring alarms went off. For the first time in a very long time, I felt not so trapped in a country that didn’t want me to serve. Being outside of the U.S., I felt like I was once again able to experience and be a part of the bigger world out there. With the time I had, I was eager to be in full tourist mode, I wanted to see everything. Perugia is a beautiful city full of stunning architecture and a vibrant culture that was a wonderful experience for me. With every step I took, I had to remind myself that I had spent two and a half years in prison, but that I certainly wasn’t there anymore.

Finally, down to business. I was in Italy to speak at the IJF about the impact of leak prosecutions, mainly I would tell the corps of journalists from all over the world about what it means to be targeted and tried under the Espionage Act.

It was clear that the festival, which was in its 24th running, was going through a bit of Assange-fatigue, as not many sessions even touched on that pressing subject. I was told that there had been a focus on Assange in a previous running of the festival and they wanted subsequent runs to center on other areas. Even though the main theme of the festival was AI and its implications for freedom of the press, I could sense a pallor of apprehension and uncertainty looming over just about every journalist I interacted with. Speaking with the journalists there, I was reminded of my recent uncertainty about traveling outside the U.S. Though they were hopeful for a non-issue when ultimately confronted with the prospect of being targeted or stopped by the Espionage Act ala Julian Assange, they couldn’t help but fear the worst. Much like if I had been stopped from either leaving the U.S. or entering Italy, once the worst happens, there may not be much that can be done about it. If Assange is ultimately extradited to the U.S. to face the Espionage Act, that will most definitely be the worst thing to happen to not only the journalists at the festival, but journalists and press freedom anywhere in the world. Those journalists at the festival were standing in the security line just like me, wondering if their rights were going to be taken away and not allowed to pass.

Surprisingly, I felt a hint of the same false sense of security that has permeated U.S. mainstream media in regards to Assange. They don’t see Assange as a journalist. They engage in a self-deception that they have nothing to fear from the Espionage Act. Endemic with Espionage Act and whistleblower prosecutions is character assassination which puts the focus squarely on the revealer and away from the government wrongdoings and illegalities revealed.

Prior to the festival, I would have found it hard to believe that the press out in the world wouldn’t see through that smokescreen. What I learned is that it wasn’t so much that the festival attendees in Italy didn’t see Assange as a journalist, they didn’t want to see him as just a journalist. He’s something in a potentially related, but an altogether different category. One of the best ways to deal with a potentially dangerous situation is to imagine that it can’t or won’t happen to you. I of course didn’t want to view myself as one of those who get put on no-fly lists, but the reality was that it didn’t matter how I viewed myself. Persecution is the sole province of the persecutor. The overall determining factor for me was and has been how my government saw me. It viewed me as a threat to national security in bringing an employment discrimination suit against the CIA and portrayed me the same way by falsely accusing me of espionage. Whether the U.S. government considers Assange a journalist or not is not the point. He will be potentially extradited and tried under the Espionage Act because they view him as a threat because of what he exposed. And that was a point I imagined trumpeting at the festival imploring the festival attendees to “wake up!”

But, that was not my only purpose at the festival. Part of what I wanted to convey is that despite the terrible ordeal I went through and what Julian Assange is currently going through at the hands of a vengeful U.S. government wielding the Espionage Act to quash dissent and silence whistleblowers, there is still hope that something can be done. I wasn’t on that stage just to scare the audience about how horrible it will be to be charged under the Espionage Act, I was there to tell them that if I could stand up against it, so can the rest of the world. I may have been imprisoned, but there I was in Italy trumpeting the call for awareness and reformation of the Espionage Act. No aggressor and no government, regardless of the power wielded, is beyond reproach. With Assange, the U.S. is threatening to assume a global reach in its ability to silence dissent. But, the more all of us, and especially journalists who can provide avenues of awareness and accountability for brave whistleblowers, stand up against unjust laws like the Espionage Act, not only will change be possible, it will be inevitable.

I don’t know if my message had any impact, the shock value alone of my ordeal can, unfortunately, be the real attention-getter. Regardless, my experience was further affirmation that, even though I went through hell, I would not be defeated. At the least, I wanted to be an image of perseverance and resilience that maybe could be a force, however slight, for awareness and change.

Jeffrey Sterling is a former CIA case officer who was at the Agency, including the Iran Task Force, for nearly a decade. He filed an employment discrimination suit against the CIA, but the case was dismissed as a threat to national security. He served two and a half years in prison after being convicted of violating the Espionage Act. No incriminating evidence was produced at trial and Sterling continues to profess his innocence. His memoir, “Unwanted Spy: The Persecution of an American Whistleblower,” was published in late 2019. He serves as a Whistleblower Advocate with RootsAction.