Judge Brinkema Doubts Government Claims about the Russian Scientist

Both sides are litigating the final issues before former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling goes on trial for alleged leaks to James Risen about a flawed plot to deal Iran nuclear blueprints. Earlier this month, Sterling’s team won the ability to call the Russian scientist the CIA used to deal the blueprints to Iran to testify.

Judge Leonie Brinkema’s partially redacted order explaining why she permitted Sterling’s request reveals as much about the government’s frayed credibility as it does about the terms under which the Russian will testify (which surely will be similar to those under which CIA’s own and former officers will testify, to protect his identity).

The government had tried to argue that the Russian was not healthy enough to testify. But, as Brinkema pointed out, that’s not what a still-sealed letter from a doctor submitted in support of the government’s objection says.

To support that argument, the government has presented a letter from the witness’s treating physician. Although the letter confirms the witness’s serious medical condition, it does not make clear that the witness is incapable of testifying; rather it simply states, “We do not that that Mr. … can do well as a witness in other state [sic] without significant risks.”

Furthermore, Brinkema points out, the letter hides so much information she has a hard time assessing it.

The letter has been redacted to prevent the Court from seeing whether it was written on letterhead stationery, who the doctor is, and what his credentials are. There is also no signature appearing on the letter.

And past claims from the government appear to have overstated the gravity of the Russian’s condition.

Given that three years ago the medical prognosis for the witness was so dire that the government was seeking leave to take a pretrial deposition of the witness the Court has concerns about the accuracy of this description of the witness’s condition.

Brinkema went on to note that Sterling could present the Russian as another potential source for a letter that appears in the chapter of James Risen’s book at issue. She also points to other, still classified reasons, laid out in Sterling’s motion for the Russian’s testimony.

With the Russian’s testimony (in whatever form), the trial will include testimony from one other person (in addition to Sterling) who was directly involved in this operation, as well as Sterling’s direct supervisor, who probably also was.  If nothing else, then, it will present a remarkable portrayal of the op the CIA claims is so secret Sterling must spend years in prison.

About Marcy Wheeler

Investigative journalist Marcy Wheeler writes the "Right to Know" column for ExposeFacts. She is best known for providing in-depth analysis of legal documents related to "war on terrorism" programs and civil liberties. Wheeler blogs at emptywheel.net and publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon and the Progressive. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit: How the Bush Administration Used the Media to Sell the Iraq War and Out a Spy. Wheeler won the 2009 Hillman Award for blog journalism.