- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 21, 2015

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) - There is no direct evidence that an ex-CIA officer leaked details of a classified mission to a journalist, but phone and email records show the two were in frequent contact, an FBI agent testified Wednesday.

Prosecutors wrapped up their case with a web of circumstantial evidence based on the phone and email contacts.

Former CIA man Jeffrey Sterling, 47, of O’Fallon, Missouri, is charged with leaking information about a purportedly botched operation to thwart Iran’s nuclear program to New York Times reporter James Risen, who wrote about the mission in the 2006 book “State of War.” Risen has refused to disclose his sources.

Sterling denies he leaked anything about the operation to Risen, and says he unfairly fell under suspicion because he became an outcast at the agency for filing a racial discrimination complaint.

Agent Ashley Hunt testified Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, walking jurors through a series of phone and email records showing dozens of contacts between Sterling and Risen. Prosecutors say the timing of those contacts is significant: Sterling’s first call to Risen came two weeks after the CIA rejected an offer to settle Sterling’s discrimination complaint for $200,000.

But on cross-examination, she said she had no proof that the two talked about the classified operation in the emails or phone calls.

Defense lawyers have not disputed that the two knew each other - in fact, Risen wrote an article about Sterling’s discrimination lawsuit. But the defense says there is no evidence that the two talked about anything that Sterling was supposed to keep secret.

Hunt also said that while she scoured Sterling’s phone and email records, she did not check the phone and email records of other potential leak sources, including Capitol Hill intelligence staffers that Hunt had initially assumed were the most likely source of the leaks. Hunt also said she didn’t review Risen’s own phone and email records; she said she wasn’t permitted to seek them out.

Risen’s refusal to divulge his sources delayed Sterling’s trial for years while prosecutors sought to compel his testimony. While prosecutors ultimately won the legal battle when courts rejected Risen’s claim that he had a First Amendment right as a reporter to resist a subpoena, the Justice Department ultimately decided not to force Risen to testify against his will, avoiding a showdown that could have resulted in Risen being jailed for contempt of court.

Risen’s refusal to serve as a government witness has forced prosecutors to piece together a more circumstantial case against Sterling.

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