ALEXANDRIA, Virginia — For years, ex-CIA case officer Jeffrey Sterling was the one under indictment but prosecutors' primary focus of pursuit was journalist Jeffrey Risen.
Prosecutors believed Sterling leaked details to Risen about one of the government's most closely held secrets: a secret CIA mission to derail Iran's nuclear ambitions by giving them deliberately flawed blueprints.
Risen, though, wouldn't divulge his sources. Prosecutors sought court orders forcing Risen to testify, saying their job would be immeasurably more difficult without his testimony.
Ultimately, though, prosecutors won their case without Risen. On Monday, Sterling was convicted in federal court on all nine charges he faced after a two-week trial in which Risen never made an appearance.
Experts said the trial shows the government can pursue leak investigations without relying on recalcitrant reporters.
At issue in the two-week trial: Who told Risen about the mission, one that former national security adviser Condoleezza Rice testified was one of America's best chances to derail Iran's nuclear-weapons ambitions?
The case was delayed for years as prosecutors fought to force Risen to divulge his sources. Risen eventually lost his legal battle to quash a government subpoena. But prosecutors ultimately decided not to call him to testify after the Justice Department, bowing to pressure from free-press advocates, promised it would not ask Risen sensitive questions about his sources.
Lacking Risen's testimony, prosecutors acknowledged a lack of direct evidence against Sterling, 47, of O'Fallon, Missouri, but said the circumstantial evidence against him was overwhelming.
Defense lawyers had said the evidence showed that Capitol Hill staffers who had been briefed on the classified operation were more likely the source of the leak.
Following the verdict, defense lawyer Edward MacMahon said he was disappointed, but "we still believe in Jeffrey's innocence." Sterling will have the option to appeal his case after he is sentenced in April. Motions to dismiss the case on various legal grounds are also still pending in front of the trial judge, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema.
Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland's journalism school and former director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, said she was not surprised by the verdict, which followed days of testimony from CIA officials who testified without revealing their last names and from behind a gray screen that shielded their faces from the public. She called it groundbreaking in the sense that it showed how prosecutors are willing to pursue such cases without reporters' cooperation.
"They're going to use this case to terrify federal employees. They're going to use this case to teach the intelligence community a lesson" about the consequences of leaks, she said.
The Obama administration has brought more leak cases than all of his predecessors combined. U.S. Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning, who leaked more than 700,000 secret military and diplomatic documents to the WikiLeaks website, was convicted at a military trial and sentenced to military prison.
Other cases were resolved before trial. Former CIA officer John Kiriakou pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 months in prison for disclosing to a reporter the name of an undercover agency officer. Thomas Drake, who worked for the National Security Agency, disclosed government waste and fraud to a reporter. He pleaded guilty to a minor charge and did not receive prison time.
A former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, was charged with leaking to journalists but received asylum in Russia.
Going back earlier, Pentagon analyst Lawrence Franklin received a 12-year sentence after a guilty plea for leaking classified information to a reporter and two pro-Israel Lobbyists, though his sentence was later reduced significantly.
The classified operation at the heart of the Sterling trial involved using a CIA asset nicknamed Merlin, who had been a Russian nuclear engineer, to foist deliberately flawed nuclear-weapons blueprints on the Iranians, hoping they would spend years trying to develop parts that had no hope of ever working.
Risen's 2006 book, "State of War," describes the mission as hopelessly botched. Throughout the trial, though, numerous CIA officers testified they had deemed the program a success, even though the Iranians never followed up with Merlin to get additional blueprints he had offered to them as part of the ruse.
Prosecutors argued to the jury that the relevant chapter of Risen's book seemed to be clearly written from Sterling's perspective as Merlin's case handler. The book describes the handler's misgivings about the operation while others at the CIA pushed the plan through despite its risks.
Furthermore, Sterling believed he had been mistreated and was angry that the agency refused to settle his racial-discrimination complaint, prosecutors said.
And jurors were given phone and email records showing dozens of interactions between Sterling and Risen.
But defense lawyers said the government had no evidence that Risen and Sterling talked about anything classified in those phone calls and emails. The government failed to obtain Risen's records to see who else he may have contacted.
Defense attorney Barry Pollack said Risen first got wind of the operation in early 2003, within weeks of Sterling reporting his misgivings to staffers at a Senate intelligence committee — a channel Sterling was legally allowed to pursue. Pollack said it makes more sense that a Capitol Hill staffer leaked to Risen.
U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Dana Boente, in a written statement, described Sterling as "a disgruntled former CIA employee" and said the leak "was illegal and went against Mr. Sterling's professional commitments to the CIA."
"Mr. Sterling's vindictive and careless choices ultimately led us here today and to this unanimous verdict."
Risen did not return a call and email seeking comment.