By Thomas Fields-Meyer
May 20, 2002 12:00 PM

Helen Sterling always believed her son Jeffrey worked for the State Department. Then one day in February she picked up her newspaper in Cape Girardeau, Mo., and learned otherwise—that for over eight years he had been a CIA spy. “I said, ‘Ooh, so that’s what he’s been doing,'” she recalls. “He never discussed his job.”

Now it seems that’s about all he wants to discuss. Sterling, 34, is convinced his career at the Central Intelligence Agency was derailed by racial discrimination—and last summer he became the first black case officer to sue on those grounds. Two months later he was fired. “I wasn’t good enough for them,” he says, “based not on my abilities but on my color.” The CIA vehemently denies Sterling’s allegations. Says spokesman Bill Harlow: “We have zero tolerance for discrimination here.” On April 17 the agency moved to have the suit dismissed, arguing it was a threat to national security. “This is a very important case,” says former CIA agent Robert Baer, author of a book about the agency. “The last thing the agency wants is to be labeled racist.”

Sterling joined the CIA in 1993 and two years later became a case officer in the Iran Task Force. (He was the only black among its more than 20 professionals.) To prepare, he spent a year studying Farsi, the language of Iran. Sent to Bonn in 1997 to recruit Iranians as agents, he grew frustrated when he wasn’t given new prospects to recruit. Perplexed, he returned to Langley and confronted his supervisors. “I asked why I wasn’t receiving any assignments. They said, “Well, you kind of stick out as a big black guy,'” Sterling recalls. “They said, ‘You bring unwanted attention to where you’re assigned.’ Everyone in management agreed I was too conspicuous. And I said, ‘Well, when did you realize that I was black?'”

He returned to work at the agency’s Langley headquarters, then in 1999 moved to the New York City CIA office, again assigned to recruit Iranians. Though supervisors gave him a good evaluation that September, they soon complained that he was not finding enough spies. When the office gave him orders to recruit at least three contacts in two months—an unusually high quota, say CIA insiders—he became more angry. “I said, ‘You are setting me up to fail,'” says Sterling.

In April of 2000 Sterling complained to the agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity office. That, he says, only brought more difficulties, including a security evaluation that he says was sooner than standard. He says he applied for several overseas postings but was turned down. Told to return to the Iran Task Force, he refused. “That office said I was too big and black,” he says. “Why would I want to go back there?” The agency placed him on administrative leave in March 2001. Frustrated, he filed suit in U.S. district court in New York City on Aug. 28, 2001. Two months later he was fired. Says Sterling: “The deck was stacked against me.”

Not that he hadn’t overcome long odds before. Growing up in Cape Girardeau, he was the youngest of six sons of Helen, 67, a retired municipal court clerk who was divorced from construction worker Howard when Jeffrey was 5. An avid reader with little interest in sports, Sterling struggled to find comfort in the racially divided town. “It was hard to be accepted on the black side,” he says, “but it was hard to be accepted on the white side.”

Determined to find a better life, Sterling earned a political science degree in 1989 at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., going on to Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. He was working in the public defender’s office there in 1992 when, on a lark, he applied to the CIA. “I wanted to see the world and make a contribution,” he says. “This seemed like a unique opportunity.”

Soon after moving to Washington, D.C., he married college sweetheart Terry Freeman, an auto saleswoman, but the marriage fell apart, ending in a painful 1997 divorce. “It was a very emotional time for me,” says Sterling, whose career was beginning a slump he now blames on racism. Despite his complaints, agency officials say they have successfully made many racially diverse hires (27 percent of those brought in last year were from minorities) and retained them. “If we had a workplace that was unwelcoming for African Americans,” says the CIA’s Harlow, “perhaps they wouldn’t want to continue here in the numbers that they do.”

Sterling is likely to encounter difficulty fighting an agency that can keep evidence out of court by citing national security. “They control the evidence and all the witnesses, and they don’t tell you anything,” says former agent Janine Brookner, who nevertheless won a $410,000 settlement in her sex-discrimination lawsuit against the CIA in 1994.

Out of a job and ostracized by many former colleagues, Sterling is considering his options—including returning to law. “I’m isolated and alone,” he says. “But I’m keeping my head up and trying to move on.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C.