Wrongfully Convicted Whistleblower Asks: What Has This All Really Been About?

| Resist!

Above: Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, left, leaves the Alexandria Federal Courthouse on Jan. 26 with his wife Holly, center, and attorney Barry Pollack, after being convicted on all nine counts he faced of leaking classified information to a reporter. Photo: Kevin Wolf for the Associated Press.

It has been a year since I walked out of a federal prison after two and a half years of incarceration. Though “free” of the prison, I remain a prisoner of the criminal justice system for a time longer — having been wrongfully tried, wrongfully convicted and wrongfully sentenced as a whistleblower. A big question for me has been, What has this all really been about?

I have not been really sure if I could be categorized as a whistleblower, at least in the sense of the current times. I had indeed blown the whistle on wrongs I witnessed and experienced while in the Central Intelligence Agency, but unlike what had been in the charges and the trial, I did so officially to both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. And for those actions, I was sent to prison.

There have been so many moments during this ordeal — from the time when I decided to file a lawsuit against the CIA to being found guilty and sent to prison for a crime I did not commit — I have struggled mightily to find any meaning to it all. The search may be in vain, but I may have found at least some semblance of meaning to add to this ordeal through one of my saving graces while in prison, Shakespeare.

While in the hell of prison, I was hungry for the words of the Bard. I had always found a comfort in the tales told by Shakespeare and did my best to read any and everything of his I could get my hands on. I was so very fortunate that so many supporters sent me many analytical works to go along with my tattered, unabridged version.

That hunger has continued since leaving prison.

I recently finished reading Stephen Greenblatt’s excellent book Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics and had my eyes opened to an interpretation of the whistleblower I had known for longer than I realized.

What has always attracted me to Shakespeare was his depiction of us and the drama of our lives. What is wonderful about Tyrant is that Greenblatt once again reminds us that the supposed uniqueness of today is nothing new, it was depicted over four hundred years ago. I was particularly struck by what Greenblatt wrote about King Lear. I had no idea when I first read King Lear so many years ago that Shakespeare had written about whistleblowers.

The very definition of the whistleblower is embodied in one of the most un-noted characters in Shakespeare, Cornwall’s servant from King Lear. I find that some of the most didactic characters in Shakespeare can come from so-called lesser knowns, the “knocking” porter in Macbeth, the asp-bearing clown in Antony and Cleopatra and the gravedigging clown in Hamlet. Greenblatt teaches of another unsung character with the servant’s first lines in King Lear, “Hold your hand, my lord…”

It is such a powerful first line as Greenblatt points out, “The words are not spoken by one of Gloucester’s sons, by a noble bystander, by a gentleman in disguise, or even by someone in Gloucester’s household. They are spoken by one of Cornwall’s own servants, someone long accustomed simply to doing his bidding. ‘I have served you ever since I was a child,’ he declares. ‘But better service have I never done you/Than now to bid you hold.’ … it stages unforgettably a moment when someone in the ruler’s service feels compelled to stop what he is witnessing.”

Greenblatt also is astute in noting how Shakespeare depicts how power does not react kindly to those who have the nerve to stand up to it; the punishment is swift and terrible. Greenblatt shows in Tyrant how “Regan is outraged at the interruption: ‘How now, you dog?’ And Cornwall, drawing his sword and using the term for feudal vassal, is no less so: ‘My villein?’ There follows a violent skirmish, master against servant, that ends when Regan, astonished that a menial would dare anything of the kind — ‘A peasant stand up thus?’ — runs him through and kills him.”

That scene, as a servant attempts to stop Cornwall from gouging out the eyes of Gloucester, is the very embodiment of what it means to be a whistleblower and what a whistleblower faces. This man, this nameless minor character stands up to the powers that be, the powers that he dutifully serves and says “stop.”

I particularly like the way Greenblatt summarizes this nameless hero and where he stood with Shakespeare: “Shakespeare did not believe that the common people could be counted upon as a bulwark against tyranny. They were, he thought, too easily manipulated by slogans, cowed by threats, or bribed by trivial gifts to serve as reliable defenders of freedom. His tyrannicides are drawn, for the most part, from the same elite whose members generate the unjust rulers they oppose and eventually kill. In King Lear’s nameless servant, however, he created a figure who serves as the very essence of popular resistance to tyrants. That man refuses to remain silent and watch. It cost him his life, but he stands up for human decency. Though he is a very minor figure with only a handful of lines, he is one of Shakespeare’s great heroes.”

It was difficult reading that scene while in prison, and Greenblatt has helped me understand why. I won’t go so far as to see myself as a hero. But, I can certainly identify with that nameless character and the anguish he must have felt. Against discrimination at the CIA and a dangerously flawed operation I stood up and said “Hold your hand…” And much like that nameless servant, for such insolence I was essentially “run through” by the Department of Justice who played an effective Regan to the CIA’s Cornwall.

Whether I am to be considered a whistleblower or not, having some meaning to grasp onto provides some peace despite the hurt and loss. Finding this identification has been like discovering a sort of acceptance with other nameless servants like John Kiriakou, Thomas Drake, Daniel Ellsberg, Terry Albury among countless, un-noted others who also said “Hold your hand…” to power. They remind us as Greenblatt points out that it is usually the unsung who take a stand and usually pay an unjust price.

As I near the time when the shackles of my ordeal are removed, I feel a motivation and obligation to give name to the nameless and fight against the condemnation that has been the unfortunate norm when the servant stands up to the wrongs of power. The RootsAction Education Fund is part of that effort and I am grateful for the platform and assistance it continues to provide.

Please do what you can to support Jeffrey’s new work as coordinator of The Project for Accountability.

  • Judith Osterman

    The servant did not stand up for his own class, but another member of the aristocracy, with whom he identified.

  • anna jacopetti

    I was horrified by the injustice you so clearly suffered. There are good reasons that Shakespeare is the most performed playwright of our time and I am touched that you were comforted by his depictions – indeed, what a piece of work is man. You, however, stand as a contrast to corruption. I wish you well in your work.

  • Doña Susy

    Mr. Sterling, It’s good that you survived your ordeal with your humanity intact. I hope your wife has survived as well. I felt badly for both of you. You are a member of that honorable group of people with integrity who speak out against evil and are punished for the good they did. May you thrive in your new endeavor and may you feel validated by a life well-lived.

  • Yes, Mr. Sterling, you are indeed a hero. Thank you for this column and for your courage.