Trial by metadata: Free speech stories

Call it guilt by metadata.

When a Washington, DC, area jury convicted Jeffrey Sterling of multiple counts of espionage, the smoking gun wasn't a key bit of classified information found in the former CIA officer's possession, it was a trail of phone calls and emails of unknown content.

The information about where those calls and emails went, however - to a New York Times reporter - was enough to convince a jury to send Sterling to prison for up to 80 years.

According to the US Justice Department, Sterling was providing Risen with details of a failed CIA attempt to undermine Iran's nuclear programme by having a Russian scientist code-named Merlin pass along intentionally flawed blueprints. Risen then exposed the operation in his 2005 book, State of War.

Sterling's motivation, prosecutors said, was to get revenge on his employer after he had unsuccessfully sued it for discriminating against him as one of the agency's only black officers.

"The defendant's unauthorised disclosures of classified information compromised operations undertaken in defence of America's national security," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement after the verdict was announced. "The disclosures placed lives at risk."

Some free speech advocates who covered the case warn that while Risen has become a cause celebre among journalists, Sterling's prosecution and conviction - which received much less coverage - could have a chilling effect on the willingness of government whistleblowers to share what they know.

Blog by Anthony Zurcher. Blog and video by Anthony Zurcher and Colm O'Molloy.

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