Unwanted Spy

The Persecution of an American Whistleblower


By Jeffrey Sterling

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The powerful story of a CIA whistleblower and political prisoner who refused to give up on his American dream

In 2015, Jeffrey Sterling was sentenced to prison, convicted of violating the Espionage Act. Sterling, it is now clear, was another victim of our government’s draconian crackdown on alleged leakers and whistleblowers.

Sterling grew up in a small, segregated town in Missouri and jumped at the chance to broaden his world and serve his country, first in law school and later in the CIA. After an impressive career, Sterling’s progress came to a sudden halt: he was denied opportunities because of his race and was pushed out of the Agency. Later, Sterling courageously blew the whistle on the CIA’s botched covert operation in Iran to Senate investigators. After a few quiet years in Missouri with his wife, he was arrested suddenly and charged with espionage.

Unwanted Spy is an inspiring account of one man’s uncompromising commitment to the truth and a reminder of the principles of justice and integrity that should define America.


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A Note About Names

THIS IS A TRUE STORY, BASED MAINLY ON MY OBSERVATIONS and recollections, supplemented in a few places by information drawn from public sources. The people who appear in these pages are a mixture of public figures (such as journalist James Risen and CIA director George Tenet) and many private individuals. In most cases, the specific identities of the private individuals are not important for you to understand the themes and meaning of my story. Therefore, I’ve chosen to refer to them by pseudonyms, as indicated by the use of quotation marks around their names when they are first mentioned (as with my childhood friend “Arnold,” for example). In some cases, I have omitted or changed places and names after the CIA’s Publication Review Process. In other cases, I have chosen to leave their redactions blacked out.




Child Without a Village

I AM THE SEVENTH OF SEVEN SONS BORN TO HELEN AND HOWARD Sterling—six lived, one son was stillborn. In order, we were Michael, Steven, Robert, Mark, John, and me, Jeffrey. Growing up, I was proud to be the youngest son of a strong mother. I dreamed we were like the powerful family of Texas oil tycoons in the TV show Dallas. But my dreams were the closest thing to a real family I ever had. I was in a large family, but I never felt a part of it.

Unlike my brothers before me, I was born via cesarean section and in a different hospital—although one would think that by the time I came along, the way would have been clear enough for me to be born in the normal fashion. My mother constantly reminded me of the toil and pain I’d put her through. “They cut me open to get you out,” she would exclaim, displaying the scars she would bear forever. My brothers taunted me with claims that I wasn’t a real Sterling—that I’d been found on the doorstep or dropped off by aliens.

In my heart of hearts, I wished it was true.

Somehow it seemed as if I’d come along too late to be a true member of the family. Around the house, I saw plenty of pictures depicting family gatherings, trips, and celebrations, but nothing like that ever happened during my life. The clan had largely scattered before my arrival. Michael and Steven had already left our home in Missouri for military service, while Robert and Mark were back and forth from their places in California. As for John, he loved torturing me with constant put-downs, teasing, and physical abuse.

When they were around, as much as I wanted to be close to them, I was afraid. These were the only male figures in my life. I wanted so badly to gain their approval, and I was so terrified at the prospect of not being accepted.

From what I could see, or at least what I thought I saw, each of my brothers seemed to be living in ways I couldn’t help but admire. Michael was in the navy and traveled around the world; Steven was a tough and dedicated marine; Mark and Robert were hardworking family men; John was a basketball star, seemingly bound for college. I gained a sort of confidence in myself and what my future could turn out to be as I observed them.

There was no father because he’d abandoned our mother when I was five years old. So, for male role models, my brothers were it. And, Michael, the oldest, was the one I especially looked up to. When I was in grade school, I was always giddy with excitement when my mother announced that Michael would be visiting home. I was so proud and envious of him. He was out there seeing and experiencing the world—not only outside of our hometown of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, but outside of the country. Whenever he was in town, I did my best to make sure he picked me up from school. I carried his service pictures with me to school and bragged endlessly that my brother, the one in the navy, was coming to get me. I made sure he arrived just before the school buses departed. I couldn’t have had a better audience than school buses brimming with kids who didn’t have brothers as worldly as mine. I would have preferred he wore his uniform, but I could never convince him to do that.

It didn’t matter where we went or what we did while Michael was in town, I just wanted to be near him, to hear of his travels throughout the world as a man in the navy. Michael was always good for tantalizing yarns about his exploits. He was too late for any action in Vietnam, but he was on a ship that sailed in the region just as the conflict was drawing down, and he sailed to various ports of call in Africa and other exotic locations that I yearned to see. I couldn’t help but be mesmerized; he provided me with the perfect window on the world and a fantasy of escape. Michael became the only father figure I would ever have in life. It was not surprising that I was always in tears when it was time for him to leave. As I look back, I have to wonder whether he knew the impact he had on me as a child.

Sadly, in the years to come, the promise in Michael and all of my brothers would turn to personal disappointment as I witnessed each of them struggling through life’s difficulties and perils. Michael and Steven never made lasting careers of military service, Mark and Robert never seemed to establish themselves or their families, and John never went to college. The larger-than-life images I saw in my brothers were torn down. I didn’t know whether to feel sad or angry at my brothers for their difficulties, for what I couldn’t help but consider to be their shortcomings. It may have been unfair of me to place so much reliance on them as role models. But the reality of my situation thrust them onto that pedestal. It was evidently a pedestal they neither understood nor wanted. And when they ultimately became more human than godlike to me, I could no longer view them with the same childish innocence and awe.

Then there was my mother. Everyone in our hometown affectionately knew her as Miss Helen. She was not only the matriarch of the Sterling family, she was also a mother figure for many in Cape. Miss Helen would never turn anyone away who needed assistance, whether in the form of food, money, or a place to stay for a while until they could get on their feet again. She was adept at taking care of older folks whose children had long forgotten them, and she joyfully took personal interest in assisting young single mothers coping with the rigors of parenthood, admonishing them to get off the streets and instructing them on providing a home for a child, especially when the father was of little or no help. Clearly, this was a challenge she knew something about, and everyone looked up to and respected her for her kindness.

Miss Helen worked as a municipal court clerk. Her official duties included preparing the court docket and collecting traffic fines and fees. Her unofficial duties included being an informal advisor for the community. Time after time, individuals facing new court summonses or an arrest warrant would flock to Miss Helen for guidance. Instead of giving legal advice, she gave instruction on what to expect and how to act: “Don’t miss your court date. Act like you have some sense and are willing to face up to your responsibility. Stand up straight and look at the judge. Stop saying ‘you know’ to the judge.”

Miss Helen was the only constant in my life, and if I could say I was close to anyone as a child, it would have been her. I wanted for nothing material growing up: I had a roof over my head, clothes on my back, food on the table, and toys for Christmas. I admired the way she provided a household for her sons despite the absence of a deadbeat father. And she did her best to instill in me a sense of pride and self-esteem. She did this in small ways—for example, by constantly reminding me to use proper English and especially to avoid hateful words like “nigger”—and in big ways, by urging me to stand up for myself, even in the face of prejudice and contempt. For all intents and purposes, she was my mother and my father.

However, there were times when my admiration for Miss Helen felt wasted. There were so many occasions where I felt as if I had to compete with everyone else for her motherly affection and attention. It was a sort of estrangement that made no sense to me and always left me with an empty feeling when dealing with her. Strangers treated her as if she was their mother, and, in my heart, I felt she was more of a mother to everyone else. Maybe this can explain why I could never call her “mama” or any other less-formal term than “mother.”

Yet I did everything I could to be a son to her. I was the kid who stayed home all the time, never ran the streets, and always earned excellent grades in school. Miss Helen always knew where I was and what I was doing. On the nights she worked late, I would wait up until I knew she was safely home. Seeing some of the angst she experienced with my brothers, I felt I at least owed it to her to not be a burden. One particular episode was dreadful for me as I heard her frantic pleas for one of my brothers, who was acting out publicly, to settle down so as to avoid attracting the attention of the police: “Please, please come inside. They’re going to kill you! Please come in the house!” At those moments, I felt helpless for her, but all I could do was be her son.

Miss Helen didn’t return my devotion. Despite my best efforts, she seemed to come down hard on me for the slightest transgression. There was the summer evening when, feeling bored, I took a ride on my bike. I liked riding my bike during the humid summer nights. The streets were silent, and the darkness obscured all the dangerous sites that I normally shied away from during the day. It was around 10 p.m., and I was riding aimlessly around and around the neighborhood when I decided to stop where a group of other kids had gathered under a streetlight about three blocks from my house. I recognized them and they me, but none of us really knew a thing about one another. I was just an innocent bystander trying to fit in, laughing at their jokes and being amazed at their stories under that bright light, with bugs flying about and crickets crooning.

Suddenly an old drinking buddy of my mother’s approached. “Jeff!” he commanded with a slight slur to his speech. “Your mother said get your ass home.”

My streetlight companions burst out laughing, ending any hope I had of being accepted by the group. I turned away and walked my bike home the three blocks with my head down in shame. When I reached the house, Miss Helen was standing on the porch, glaring down at me with a chilling look of disapproval. I passed her without a word and went straight to bed.

Of all the members of my family, my mother is the only one I had any feeling of genuine love for—which made my later disappointment with her even deeper.

As for my father, he was basically a mystery to me. When Miss Helen mentioned him, I would often say, “I don’t even know what he looks like.”

Her answer was always the same: “You should, ’cause you look just like him.”

The similarities evidently didn’t stop there. Whenever I became hotheaded, as kids sometimes do, my mother would say, “You’re just like your father.” I didn’t know exactly what she meant about my father’s temper until years later, after I’d moved away from Cape. On one of my return visits home, when my mother was holding court with a group of her friends in the living room, someone mentioned how abusive men can be to their wives. Another person chimed in, “But when a man forces his wife to have sex, it ain’t rape. That’s the law!”

That prompted Miss Helen to get up on her soapbox. “Of course a woman can be raped by her husband,” she declared. “It happens all the time. Howard raped me every time he touched me. All of my kids were the product of rape.” She said it with a cruel sort of matter-of-factness that tore right into me.

Hearing her, and feeling as though the eyes of everyone were now on me, I could only muster, “Well, that certainly makes me feel good. Thank you.”

I think her statement had an especially intense effect on me because I was the youngest child in the family. My parents’ relationship must have been near its end when I was conceived, which makes the likelihood that I was the product of one of the worst forms of violence that can be inflicted upon a woman even greater. Something about me and the way I viewed my position in the family changed forever.

Comments by my brothers deepened my feelings of estrangement in regard to my father. Steven, Robert, and Mark all lived with our father in Los Angeles at one time or another following our parents’ separation. When they separated, Howard moved to California and Miss Helen stayed in Cape. While she was happy to be free of Howard and his controlling and demeaning ways, she frequently let me know how heartbroken she was when the judge presiding over their divorce gave Steven, Robert, and Mark the choice of whether they wanted to live with Howard in sunny California or remain with Miss Helen in Cape. The promises of the beach and Disneyland were too much for my brothers, and they naturally chose to leave Miss Helen for a less-than-ideal life with Howard. When asked about life with Howard, they would reply, “That nigger is evil, pure evil. Don’t let him get his hooks into you. He’s a liar, and he will try to take advantage of you.”

As for me, I never saw my father, although I occasionally spoke to him on the phone. I didn’t believe he could be as bad as my mother and my brothers made him sound. Or maybe I just didn’t want to accept the possibility that a man like that could be my father.

PROVIDING THE BACKDROP for this family was my hometown. Cape Girardeau is a hamlet about ninety-nine miles south of St. Louis, nestled along the western banks of the Mississippi. If you’ve heard of Cape, it’s probably because the right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh was born there, which in its own way tells you a lot about the town.

Cape is the kind of place Mark Twain wrote about, and I doubt it has really changed much since the days of Huck Finn. It is a quiet town, save for the occasional wailing fire truck and the flashing lights of a police car pulling over a speeder. There is no smog, no bright neon lights. There is a band shell in the park for evening concerts in the summer, a perfect setting for taking the family with some lawn chairs, a blanket, and a cooler full of drinks and snacks. On Independence Day and other holidays, there are parades with proud school marching bands, clowns, fire trucks, and Shriners motoring around in brightly colored miniature cars paying homage to fallen veterans. Cape also has the typical county fair with dilapidated rides and prize livestock contests, as well as a sampling of local cuisine interspersed among the usual carnival fare of corn dogs, cotton candy, and funnel cakes. Cape is the type of town that closes down at night. When I was a youth, no one was expected to do anything on Sundays save for going to church. The blue laws made sure that nothing was sold on Sundays except for food.

Not only is religion the spiritual foundation of Cape, it is also an institution of racial division. Blacks go to black churches and whites go to white churches. I can never remember a white face in the churches I attended—although I never had much inclination to attend church beyond the excursions forced upon me by my mother. They thankfully ended around my early teens, when I found watching pro sports a better way to spend a Sunday.

The racial divisions in Cape affected much more than the churches. I lived part of my early childhood in a neighborhood called Marble City Heights, a hilly area in the central part of Cape. Unlike in other neighborhoods, the houses in the Heights were typically wood framed rather than brick. Some of the houses were nice, elegant homes, while others looked like a mishmash of materials found along the side of a highway and nailed together to form a ramshackle structure that would never pass a housing inspection.

One such house was the one next door to mine, where “Miss Emily” lived. It had siding in several mismatched colors, old wooden windows, flaking paint, and an assortment of junk strewn about the yard. Miss Emily was a rotund elderly woman of diminutive stature with pulled-back bluish-gray hair and a dark complexion. She had the typical features of the female elders, with knee-highs, false teeth, and a motherly face weathered and battered through the years. Known as the neighborhood watchdog, Miss Emily spent most of her day sitting on the porch observing all the goings-on in the neighborhood. Her house sat on a bit of an incline, so it seemed as if she and the house were looking down as you passed by. “Hi, Baby, how you doin’? Y’all stop messin’ ‘round in that street. Don’t make me get off this porch!” were the constants bellowed by Miss Emily up on her throne. I was always amazed at the strong voice coming from such a frail-looking elderly woman. If one didn’t respond with a “Hi, Miss Emily,” or “How you doin’, Miss Emily?” her radar seemed to go up and she kept an even keener eye out for any misdeeds you might be up to.

There was always respect for the elders of the neighborhood, which generally meant anyone with gray hair. The elder women were always greeted as “miss” and the men were always addressed as “mister.” Last names were rarely used. Not addressing an elder appropriately was almost as blasphemous as cursing in front of one’s parent.

Even though the occasional ice cream truck rolled through the streets, most of the neighborhood kids got ice cream from “Mr. Sam.” Typical of the male elders, Mr. Sam was a tall, light-skinned man with a plump belly and suspenders to hold his pants up. He had a wood-framed house that, like Miss Emily’s, was thrown together from random scraps of material. It was on a hill just above mine and hidden from public view by bushes and overgrowth. Mr. Sam sold ice cream from a big freezer on his enclosed front porch. He also sold an assortment of candy inside a small glass case. I pressed my face against that glass many a day, ogling the goodies inside. Like many of the elders, Mr. Sam knew everyone in the neighborhood. He made a point of knowing exactly what a patron’s usual purchase was.

Another area of Cape was Smelterville (usually pronounced something like “Smothahville”), a low-lying area right along the river. Like the Heights, Smelterville was predominantly black. All of the homes in Smelterville were downhill from the main road, where the pavement ended and the streets were gravel. It reminded me of the swamps I had seen on televised nature programs. The people of Smelterville seemed more southern to me than anyone else in Cape. The men I saw there typically wore overalls, while the women would have on flowered dresses and have their hair wrapped up in large handkerchiefs. The children were usually barefoot, and their clothes always seemed soiled. There was always a stray dog or cat wandering through the abandoned cars sitting alongside the houses.

When the city planners built the floodwall to protect the town, they did not extend it as far as Smelterville. As a result, Smelterville was notorious for being periodically decimated by floodwaters. The houses there were all propped up on stilts of some kind, either wood or stone blocks. However, this protection was never enough against the raging Mississippi, so the houses in Smelterville were in even more desperate condition than those in the Heights. Possibly because of the periodic flooding, there was always a particular smell associated with Smelterville—a dank, almost sweet odor that permeated the air and everything in the neighborhood.

The only reason I spent time in Smelterville was because my mother had friends there and liked to go to Porter’s, the local bar. I became quite familiar with Porter’s, as she usually took me along for social visits and occasional parties. It was a dark sort of place at the bottom of a graveled hill. There was a long vinyl-covered bar banked by swiveled bar stools and neon beer signs that provided just enough light for the tables that were scattered about the room. There was a jukebox, a pinball machine, a couple of small pool tables, and an area big enough to dance. I always liked going to Porter’s with my mother because it was the one place I knew that had moon pies. As she socialized, I made my pick of either a chocolate or a banana moon pie. The owner of the bar would occasionally give me a couple of quarters to play the pinball machine. In those days, pinball machines were set up with five balls per game as opposed to three. With my moon pie and pinball games, I would be happily occupied for a good amount of time and of no concern to my mother or any other adult there.

Then there was the last neighborhood I lived in, on South Middle Street. There were paved streets with sidewalks, streetlights, and no wooded areas. There were one or two wood-framed houses, but most of the houses were properly constructed of brick; they had basements and often a second floor. To me, coming from the Heights, these houses seemed like stately manors, and the move felt like going from the country to the city. However, just a couple of blocks over were the same sort of shacks I was used to seeing in the Heights.

To my amazement, most of the inhabitants of South Middle were white. This was the first time I had ever come so close to white folks. They had clearly been in that neighborhood for years, as they were all senior citizens who rarely ventured out of their houses. Apparently, they had missed the last “white flight” train taken by the middle-class refugees who’d abandoned that part of Cape years earlier.

The dark side of the neighborhood was a block away on the cross street, Good Hope. Whenever I heard about people “out on the streets”—including my brothers—I immediately thought of Good Hope. There were a couple of bars and a few scattered businesses, like a barbershop and machine-tool plant. People were always just standing around with forty-ounce beers or liquor bottles wrapped in brown paper bags or dragging on concealed joints. There was usually a craps game happening right out in the open, with the gamblers’ yells of confidence alternating with anguished cries of defeat.

One year, my school bus stop was on Good Hope, and while waiting for the bus I would notice the broken bottles and bloodstains adding color to the street. Good Hope was where I saw the drunks and winos. There was a difference between a normal drunk and a wino. A normal drunk typically drank beer or whiskey, got drunk on the weekends, and went home to sleep it off. A wino drank wine of any variety and usually of low quality—brands like Mad Dog 20/20, Night Train, and Boone’s Farm, among others. The wino was always drunk and constantly reeked of alcohol. The wino would never make it home. At their drunkest, the winos were staggering down the street aimlessly or passed out in puddles of their own urine.

Good Hope had a loudness I was not used to. Shouting and screaming from brutal fights or arguments was normal. I rarely saw police cars until I lived near Good Hope. In the early years, the police officers were always white, so their very presence on Good Hope was the epitome of white authority and a source of notable tension.

Living near Good Hope gave me a sense of what people meant by the word “ghetto.” However, my feeling was I didn’t live in the ghetto; I just lived near it. For me as a child, my home, the house on South Middle, was my world. I considered it my sanctuary, a safe haven from a dangerous world I didn’t belong to. But, my mother being the type of person she was—renowned for her prowess in the kitchen and the fact that she never turned anyone away—there were constant intruders into that haven. Miss Helen loved to entertain guests with a lively game of poker, a game called “bid-n-whiz” (at least that’s the way it sounded), or just sitting around, talking about whatever, over the background music from forty-fives on the record player. The one constant for any visitor was alcohol. Visitors would always bring beer, which my mother enjoyed, or something harder.

Though I detested the constant flow of visitors, I did notice how my mother was at her best with a house full of people. Those were the times she looked happiest. It was not so much from the alcohol, but because she enjoyed having people around.

Since I was always home, I took notice of everyone who came by. I kept my distance from them all, but I also stayed close enough to make observations. I trusted no one and took every opportunity to get back at them for intruding upon my fortress of solitude, especially when it came to the hard drinkers.

One of the visitors who would often come by was “Joe,” an old friend of my mother’s. As a wino, Joe preferred to drink cheap wine, but my mother wouldn’t allow him to bring that into her house. Instead, he would usually bring a bottle of Old Grand-Dad or some other strong drink that I considered little better than paint thinner. Joe always had a suit jacket on, regardless of whether it matched the rest of his ensemble.

Joe was always a source of entertainment for the household. When he was drunk, he would get quite emotional. Whenever the song “Misty Blue” was played on the record player, Joe would burst into tears. His wife had died many years earlier, and I think that song made him think of her and how much he missed her. It was quite a pathetic sight, this slobbering drunken man with tears streaming down his tightly closed eyes, mumbling his love for a long-departed wife over and over again.

One day, when Joe was passed out in a chair in our living room, I saw a great opportunity for mischief. I placed one receiver from my toy walkie-talkie behind a curtain just above Joe’s head, and positioned myself with the other receiver in the next room so I could watch him undetected. In the deepest voice I could muster as a ten-year-old, I said, “Joe… This is God, Joe.”

In his drunken haze, Joe stirred and mumbled, “Yes, Lord, I hear you.”

Holding back my laughter, I continued more sternly, “Joe, you have to stop drinking. Joe, you have to stop drinking.”

With his eyes closed and clutching his hands, Joe said, “I know Lord, but life is so hard, it’s so hard.” He began to cry.

“It’s okay, Joe, you will be okay. But please stop drinking,” I commanded. With his head down and his eyes still clenched shut, Joe raised his hands and said, “I hear you, Lord! I will stop drinking.” He then collapsed back into the chair and resumed his slumber.

Given his reaction, I sort of felt bad, but this was a drunk invading my home. Of course, he was back the next week, passed out in the same chair.


  • "A book that amply demonstrates grave flaws in the criminal justice system."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Americans owe a debt to Jeffrey Sterling, who told the truth and endured imprisonment for us. His story is a powerful tale of integrity and bravery and the price a decent American paid for defending the values enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Make your children read it and learn."—Charles Glass, former ABC News Chief Middle East Correspondent and author of They Fought Alone: The True Story of the Starr Brothers, British Secret Agents in Nazi-Occupied France
  • "Unwanted Spy is at the same time an American tragedy and a first-person account of how to live an upstanding life against daunting odds. Jeffrey Sterling is a patriot. He is also one of the most courageous and underappreciated whistleblowers in contemporary America. We all want to believe the best about our country, our government, and our society. But the truth is sometimes ugly. And sometimes patriots are harmed by that ugliness. Jeffrey Sterling was vilified by our government because he wouldn't toe the line. He paid for his conscientiousness with his freedom. Unwanted Spy makes it clear, though, that he was right and 'they' were wrong. He's the better man for it."—John Kiriakou, former CIA counterterrorismofficer and senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
  • "[His] autobiography resonantly places his CIA experience in the context of epochal grievances concerning institutional racism."—The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS–Americas)

On Sale
Oct 15, 2019
Page Count
272 pages
Bold Type Books

Jeffrey Sterling

About the Author

Jeffrey Sterling is a lawyer and former CIA case officer who was convicted of violating the Espionage Act and was in federal prison in Colorado. Before his trial and conviction, Sterling worked at the CIA, including for the Iran task force, for nearly a decade. He studied political science at Millikin University and holds a law degree from the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. He was released from prison in January 2018.

Learn more about this author