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Posted at 11:25 AM ET, 01/23/2011

Lawyer in CIA leak case questioned by grand jury

By Jeff Stein

A former lawyer for Jeffrey Sterling, a onetime CIA officer who has been charged with leaking secrets to New York Times reporter James Risen, was questioned about his client before a grand jury last September, he says.

Washington, D.C. attorney Mark Zaid had represented Sterling, an African American operative for the CIA from 1993 to 2002, in a discrimination suit against the agency a decade ago. The CIA rejected Sterling’s final offer to settle the case, which was eventually dismissed by a court.

Zaid says he was subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury in Virginia investigating the leak case on Sept. 22 and was questioned ”for a couple of hours” by Justice Department prosecutor William M. Welch II.

Zaid would not discuss his testimony, which was first reported in the St. Louis (Mo.) Beacon, a nonprofit online publication staffed by veteran former editors and reporters from the longtime daily St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

But the Beacon, citing an unidentified source, said that “prosecutors questioned Zaid about Sterling's motive in allegedly leaking classified information about an intelligence operation in Iran to James Risen of The New York Times.”

Another source with knowledge of the case, who requested anonymity because grand jury proceedings are secret, confirmed to SpyTalk that “the gist” of Welch’s questions “always seemed to be about motive,” but Zaid would not answer any questions protected by attorney-client privilege.

The Beacon reported that “the indictment alleges that Sterling leaked the information to retaliate against the CIA for its refusal to settle his race discrimination claim and to approve a memoir he was writing,” the paper added.

The CIA says that Sterling leaked information to Risen about a sensitive CIA operation to sabotage Iran's nuclear program, which backfired, according a chapter in a 2006 book Risen wrote about the agency.

The author of the Beacon piece, William H. Freivogel, a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter who is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, also wrote that, according to his source, “Zaid's testimony was entirely about his contacts with third parties on Sterling's behalf and was outside of the attorney-client privilege.”

Until his arrest on Jan. 6, Sterling had been living in the St. Louis area for the past several years and working as an insurance investigator for Wellpoint, Inc., the Post-Dispatch reported Saturday. Last year he won “a national award from the BlueCross BlueShield Association for helping break up a Medicare fraud ring that submitted about $100 million in bogus bills,” the paper said.

Jesselyn Radack, a lawyer with the Government Accountability Project in Washington, strongly objected to the Justice Department’s subpoena of Zaid.

“This is just another example of government overkill," she told the Beacon. "As a legal ethicist, I am quite troubled by this.”

Zaid said the tone of the questioning “for the most part was professional and relaxed. I was told going into it that I was neither a subject nor target” of the investigation.

The Justice Department declined comment.

By Jeff Stein  | January 23, 2011; 11:25 AM ET
Categories:  Intelligence, Justice/FBI, Lawandcourts  
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