- Associated Press - Friday, January 14, 2011

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — An ex-CIA agent pleaded not guilty Friday to illegally leaking classified documents about agency programs in Iran to a New York Times reporter.

Meanwhile, the lawyer for former agent Jeffrey Sterling criticized the government for prosecuting his client while failing to go after the reporter and publisher who produced the book that purportedly disseminated the leaked secrets. Sterling had worked on the CIA’s Iran Task Force.

“The government seems to find a way to indict the most minor players while the publishers and media get off the hook. Sources beware,” defense attorney Edward MacMahon said outside the courtroom after the hearing.

The law governing illegal disclosures of classified information makes it a crime not only for a government agent to leak documents, but also for a reporter or anyone else who receives the information to make it public. But the law is rarely used to prosecute non-government officials, and it has proven problematic for prosecutors in the past.

At Friday’s arraignment, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema did not set a trial date. MacMahon said he has not yet been able to discuss the case in detail with his client because he does not yet have the necessary clearances.

The judge was dismayed that McMahon had not yet been cleared, as he was appointed to represent Sterling in part because he has had numerous clearances in other sensitive cases, including that of al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.

Brinkema also told prosecutors it will be impossible to conduct an open trial if the government continues to try to keep basic facts of the case out of public view.

For example, the indictment accuses Sterling of leaking information and documents to a reporter identified only as “author A,” even though it is clear from details in the indictment and from numerous reports that the author is New York Times reporter James Risen.

Risen’s 2006 book “State of War” revealed details about the CIA’s covert spy war with Iran. Risen has not cooperated with investigators.

“It will be impossible to prosecute this case without some of that being out,” Brinkema told prosecutors.

Prosecutor William Welch said the government will be willing to disclose certain facts as the case proceeds.

Sterling, 43, of O’Fallon, Mo., has a long, contentious history with the CIA. He served as an agent from 1993 to 2002 and filed a racial discrimination complaint with the agency’s Equal Opportunity office in 2000. He followed that up with several federal lawsuits.

Brinkema has been publicly critical of the CIA after agency officials falsely said video and audio tapes of al-Qaida interrogations in the Moussaoui case did not exist. The agency corrected itself after the trial, and Brinkema said at the time that she could no longer trust CIA representations about classified evidence in terrorism cases.

Sterling is currently in jail pending a detention hearing set for Wednesday. The government opposes sterling’s release.

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