George Bush insists that Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. So why, six years ago, did the CIA give the Iranians blueprints to build a bomb?
In an extract from his explosive new book, New York Times reporter James Risen reveals the bungles and miscalculations that led to a spectacular intelligence fiasco
Guardian James Risen 5 January 2006
She had probably done this a dozen times before. Modern digital technology had made clandestine communications with overseas agents seem routine. Back in the cold war, contacting a secret agent in Moscow or Beijing was a dangerous, labour-intensive process that could take days or even weeks. But by 2004, it was possible to send high-speed, encrypted messages directly and instantaneously from CIA headquarters to agents in the field who were equipped with small, covert personal communications devices. So the officer at CIA headquarters assigned to handle communications with the agency’s spies in Iran probably didn’t think twice when she began her latest download. With a few simple commands, she sent a secret data flow to one of the Iranian agents in the CIA’s spy network. Just as she had done so many times before.
But this time, the ease and speed of the technology betrayed her. The CIA officer had made a disastrous mistake. She had sent information to one Iranian agent that exposed an entire spy network; the data could be used to identify virtually every spy the CIA had inside Iran.
Deep in the bowels of the CIA, someone must be nervously, but very privately, wondering: “Whatever happened to those nuclear blueprints we gave to the Iranians?”
Mistake piled on mistake. As the CIA later learned, the Iranian who received the download was a double agent. The agent quickly turned the data over to Iranian security officials, and it enabled them to “roll up” the CIA’s network throughout Iran. CIA sources say that several of the Iranian agents were arrested and jailed, while the fates of some of the others is still unknown.
This espionage disaster, of course, was not reported. It left the CIA virtually blind in Iran, unable to provide any significant intelligence on one of the most critical issues facing the US – whether Tehran was about to go nuclear.
In fact, just as President Bush and his aides were making the case in 2004 and 2005 that Iran was moving rapidly to develop nuclear weapons, the American intelligence community found itself unable to provide the evidence to back up the administration’s public arguments. On the heels of the CIA’s failure to provide accurate pre-war intelligence on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, the agency was once again clueless in the Middle East. In the spring of 2005, in the wake of the CIA’s Iranian disaster, Porter Goss, its new director, told President Bush in a White House briefing that the CIA really didn’t know how close Iran was to becoming a nuclear power.
But it’s worse than that. Deep in the bowels of the CIA, someone must be nervously, but very privately, wondering: “Whatever happened to those nuclear blueprints we gave to the Iranians?”
The story dates back to the Clinton administration and February 2000, when one frightened Russian scientist walked Vienna’s winter streets. The Russian had good reason to be afraid. He was walking around Vienna with blueprints for a nuclear bomb.
To be precise, he was carrying technical designs for a TBA 480 high-voltage block, otherwise known as a “firing set”, for a Russian-designed nuclear weapon. He held in his hands the knowledge needed to create a perfect implosion that could trigger a nuclear chain reaction inside a small spherical core. It was one of the greatest engineering secrets in the world, providing the solution to one of a handful of problems that separated nuclear powers such as the United States and Russia from rogue countries such as Iran that were desperate to join the nuclear club but had so far fallen short.
The Russian, who had defected to the US years earlier, still couldn’t believe the orders he had received from CIA headquarters. The CIA had given him the nuclear blueprints and then sent him to Vienna to sell them – or simply give them – to the Iranian representatives to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). With the Russian doing its bidding, the CIA appeared to be about to help Iran leapfrog one of the last remaining engineering hurdles blocking its path to a nuclear weapon. The dangerous irony was not lost on the Russian – the IAEA was an international organisation created to restrict the spread of nuclear technology.
The Russian was a nuclear engineer in the pay of the CIA, which had arranged for him to become an American citizen and funded him to the tune of $5,000 a month. It seemed like easy money, with few strings attached.
Until now. The CIA was placing him on the front line of a plan that seemed to be completely at odds with the interests of the US, and it had taken a lot of persuading by his CIA case officer to convince him to go through with what appeared to be a rogue operation.
The case officer worked hard to convince him – even though he had doubts about the plan as well. As he was sweet-talking the Russian into flying to Vienna, the case officer wondered whether he was involved in an illegal covert action. Should he expect to be hauled before a congressional committee and grilled because he was the officer who helped give nuclear blueprints to Iran? The code name for this operation was Merlin; to the officer, that seemed like a wry tip-off that nothing about this programme was what it appeared to be. He did his best to hide his concerns from his Russian agent.
The Russian’s assignment from the CIA was to pose as an unemployed and greedy scientist who was willing to sell his soul – and the secrets of the atomic bomb – to the highest bidder. By hook or by crook, the CIA told him, he was to get the nuclear blueprints to the Iranians. They would quickly recognise their value and rush them back to their superiors in Tehran.
The plan had been laid out for the defector during a CIA-financed trip to San Francisco, where he had meetings with CIA officers and nuclear experts mixed in with leisurely wine-tasting trips to Sonoma County. In a luxurious San Francisco hotel room, a senior CIA official involved in the operation talked the Russian through the details of the plan. He brought in experts from one of the national laboratories to go over the blueprints that he was supposed to give the Iranians.
The senior CIA officer could see that the Russian was nervous, and so he tried to downplay the significance of what they were asking him to do. He said the CIA was mounting the operation simply to find out where the Iranians were with their nuclear programme. This was just an intelligence-gathering effort, the CIA officer said, not an illegal attempt to give Iran the bomb. He suggested that the Iranians already had the technology he was going to hand over to them. It was all a game. Nothing too serious.
On paper, Merlin was supposed to stunt the development of Tehran’s nuclear programme by sending Iran’s weapons experts down the wrong technical path. The CIA believed that once the Iranians had the blueprints and studied them, they would believe the designs were usable and so would start to build an atom bomb based on the flawed designs. But Tehran would get a big surprise when its scientists tried to explode their new bomb. Instead of a mushroom cloud, the Iranian scientists would witness a disappointing fizzle. The Iranian nuclear programme would suffer a humiliating setback, and Tehran’s goal of becoming a nuclear power would have been delayed by several years. In the meantime, the CIA, by watching Iran’s reaction to the blueprints, would have gained a wealth of information about the status of Iran’s weapons programme, which has been shrouded in secrecy.
The Russian studied the blueprints the CIA had given him. Within minutes of being handed the designs, he had identified a flaw. “This isn’t right,” he told the CIA officers gathered around the hotel room. “There is something wrong.” His comments prompted stony looks, but no straight answers from the CIA men. No one in the meeting seemed surprised by the Russian’s assertion that the blueprints didn’t look quite right, but no one wanted to enlighten him further on the matter, either.
In fact, the CIA case officer who was the Russian’s personal handler had been stunned by his statement. During a break, he took the senior CIA officer aside. “He wasn’t supposed to know that,” the CIA case officer told his superior. “He wasn’t supposed to find a flaw.”
“Don’t worry,” the senior CIA officer calmly replied. “It doesn’t matter.”
The CIA case officer couldn’t believe the senior CIA officer’s answer, but he managed to keep his fears from the Russian, and continued to train him for his mission.
After their trip to San Francisco, the case officer handed the Russian a sealed envelope with the nuclear blueprints inside. He was told not to open the envelope under any circumstances. He was to follow the CIA’s instructions to find the Iranians and give them the envelope with the documents inside. Keep it simple, and get out of Vienna safe and alive, the Russian was told. But the defector had his own ideas about how he might play that game.
The CIA had discovered that a high-ranking Iranian official would be travelling to Vienna and visiting the Iranian mission to the IAEA, and so the agency decided to send the Russian to Vienna at the same time. It was hoped that he could make contact with either the Iranian representative to the IAEA or the visitor from Tehran.
In Vienna, however, the Russian unsealed the envelope with the nuclear blueprints and included a personal letter of his own to the Iranians. No matter what the CIA told him, he was going to hedge his bets. There was obviously something wrong with the blueprints – so he decided to mention that fact to the Iranians in his letter. They would certainly find flaws for themselves, and if he didn’t tell them first, they would never want to deal with him again.
The Russian was thus warning the Iranians as carefully as he could that there was a flaw somewhere in the nuclear blueprints, and he could help them find it. At the same time, he was still going through with the CIA’s operation in the only way he thought would work.
The Russian soon found 19 Heinstrasse, a five-storey office and apartment building with a flat, pale green and beige facade in a quiet, slightly down-at-heel neighbourhood in Vienna’s north end. Amid the list of Austrian tenants, there was one simple line: “PM/Iran.” The Iranians clearly didn’t want publicity. An Austrian postman helped him. As the Russian stood by, the postman opened the building door and dropped off the mail. The Russian followed suit; he realised that he could leave his package without actually having to talk to anyone. He slipped through the front door, and hurriedly shoved his envelope through the inner-door slot at the Iranian office.
The Russian fled the mission without being seen. He was deeply relieved that he had made the hand-off without having to come face to face with a real live Iranian. He flew back to the US without being detected by either Austrian security or, more importantly, Iranian intelligence.
Just days after the Russian dropped off his package at the Iranian mission, the National Security Agency reported that an Iranian official in Vienna abruptly changed his schedule, making airline reservations to fly home to Iran. The odds were that the nuclear blueprints were now in Tehran.
The Russian scientist’s fears about the operation seemed well founded. He was the front man for what may have been one of the most reckless operations in the modern history of the CIA, one that may have helped put nuclear weapons in the hands of a charter member of what President George W Bush has called the “axis of evil”.
Operation Merlin has been one of the most closely guarded secrets in the Clinton and Bush administrations. It’s not clear who originally came up with the idea, but the plan was first approved by Clinton. After the Russian scientist’s fateful trip to Vienna, however, the Merlin operation was endorsed by the Bush administration, possibly with an eye toward repeating it against North Korea or other dangerous states.
Several former CIA officials say that the theory behind Merlin – handing over tainted weapon designs to confound one of America’s adversaries – is a trick that has been used many times in past operations, stretching back to the cold war. But in previous cases, such Trojan horse operations involved conventional weapons; none of the former officials had ever heard of the CIA attempting to conduct this kind of high-risk operation with designs for a nuclear bomb. The former officials also said these kind of programmes must be closely monitored by senior CIA managers in order to control the flow of information to the adversary. If mishandled, they could easily help an enemy accelerate its weapons development. That may be what happened with Merlin.
Iran has spent nearly 20 years trying to develop nuclear weapons, and in the process has created a strong base of sophisticated scientists knowledgeable enough to spot flaws in nuclear blueprints. Tehran also obtained nuclear blueprints from the network of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, and so already had workable blueprints against which to compare the designs obtained from the CIA. Nuclear experts say that they would thus be able to extract valuable information from the blueprints while ignoring the flaws.
“If [the flaw] is bad enough,” warned a nuclear weapons expert with the IAEA, “they will find it quite quickly. That would be my fear”
© James Risen 2006
· This is an edited extract from State of War, by James Risen, published by The Free Press
James Risen’s MERLIN Source Arrested
Jeffrey Alexander Sterling, 43, of O’Fallon, Mo., was charged in a 10-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia on Dec. 22, 2010, and unsealed today. The indictment charges Sterling with six counts of unauthorized disclosure of national defense information, and one count each of unlawful retention of national defense information, mail fraud, unauthorized conveyance of government property and obstruction of justice. Sterling was arrested today in St. Louis and is expected to make his initial appearance this afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge Terry I. Adelman in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.
The arrest seems all the more futile given that everyone knows the story in question.
Which leaves the interesting bits of this press release, revealing Sterling’s motive for the leak.
According to the indictment, Sterling was employed by the CIA from May 1993 to January 2002. From November 1998 through May 2000, he was assigned to a classified clandestine operational program designed to conduct intelligence activities related to the weapons capabilities of certain countries, including Country A. During that same time frame, he was also the operations officer assigned to handle a human asset associated with that program. According to the indictment, Sterling was reassigned in May 2000, at which time he was no longer authorized to receive or possess classified documents concerning the program or the individual.
Specifically, the indictment alleges that beginning in August 2000, Sterling pursued various administrative and civil actions against the CIA concerning alleged employment-related racial discrimination and decisions made by the CIA’s Publications Review Board regarding Sterling’s efforts to publish his memoirs. According to the indictment, on Feb. 12, 2003, the CIA rejected Sterling’s third offer to settle his discrimination lawsuit, which was ultimately dismissed by the court.
The indictment alleges that beginning a few weeks later, in February and March 2003, Sterling made various telephone calls to the author’s residence, and e-mailed the author a newspaper article about the weapons capabilities of Country A. According to the indictment, while the possible newspaper article containing the classified information Sterling allegedly provided ultimately was not published in 2003, Sterling and the author remained in touch from December 2003 through November 2005 via telephone and e-mail. The indictment alleges that in January 2006, the author published a book which contained classified information about the program and the human asset.
The indictment also alleges that Sterling obstructed justice when, between April and July 2006, he deleted the e-mail he had sent to the author concerning the weapons capabilities of Country A from his account. According to the indictment, Sterling was aware by June 2003 of an FBI investigation into his disclosure of national defense information, and was aware of a grand jury investigation into the matter by June 2006, when he was served a grand jury subpoena for documents relating to the author’s book.
Note the reference to several suits against the CIA. The first of these appears to have been at a minimum an employment discrimination suit filed in NY on August 2, 2000. On April 18, 2002, the CIA first invoked state secrets in his case. On March 7, 2003, the judge in NY granted the CIA’s venue complaint and moved the case to Alexandria, VA–basically the CIA’s very own district court. On March 3, 2004, the case was dismissed. And on September 28, 2005, the Appeals Court rejected Sterling’s appeal.
Sterling’s second suit was filed on March 4, 2003 (that is, the day after his employment discrimination suit was dismissed in VA). It charges that Sterling submitted his memoirs for pre-publication review in 2002. His second submission was held up, not least to give CIA’s Office of General Counsel a review. Sterling claims that OGC got involved to give them an advantage in the NY employment discrimination suit. In December 2002, the CIA told him some of the information was classified (after having earlier said that similar information was not). Upon rejecting his submission on January 3, 2003, the CIA not only told him some of the information was classified, but they “informed Sterling that he should add information into the manuscript that was blatantly false.”
So here’s how this works out in a timeline:
November 1998: Sterling assigned to Iranian nukes
February 2000: As part of CIA op, Russian scientist gives nuclear blueprint to Iran, but tells them of its faults
May 2000: Sterling taken off Iranian nuke operation and compartmented out of the program
August 2, 2000: Sterling files employment discrimination suit in NY
January 2002: Sterling’s employment with CIA ends
April 2002: Sterling and his lawyer, Mark Zaid, attend first publication review board meeting, reach agreement on publication concerns
April 18, 2002: CIA invokes state secrets in employment discrimination suit
October 2002: Sterling submits second bunch of chapters to PRB
November 2002: PRB tells Sterling there will be a delay
December 2, 2002: PRB notifies Sterling of classified passages
January 3, 2003: CIA PRB refuses Sterling’s manuscript, tells him to include false information
February 12, 2003: CIA rejects settlement on employment discrimination
February 2003-March 2003: Sterling first contacts Risen
March 7, 2003: Employment discrimination moved to Virginia
March 4, 2003: Sterling sues CIA in publication suit
June 2003: Sterling becomes aware of an FBI investigation into his alleged leak of classified information
December 2003: Sterling resumes contact with Risen
March 3, 2004: VA court dismisses suit
July 30, 2004: PRB suit dismissed
September 28, 2005: Appeals Court rejects Sterling’s employment discrimination suit
I’ll have more to say about this shortly, but for the moment, suffice it to say the two claims: CIA’s invocation of state secrets in an employment discrimination suit, along with Sterling’s claim he was asked to include false information in his manuscript, raise some interesting questions.
CIA Doesn’t Want You To Know It Gave Iran Nuclear Blueprints
Here’s what I think happened with Jeffrey Alexander Sterling, the former CIA officer who just got arrested for leaking classified information to James Risen.
As I noted in the timeline, Sterling was assigned to an operation in November 1998. Given that the DOJ press release specifies that Sterling was “the operations officer assigned to handle a human asset associated with that program,” and given that Risen’s MERLIN story includes first person details from the case officer managing a Russian scientist asked to leak a nuclear blueprint to the Iranians, it seems that Sterling was that case officer.
In other words, Sterling was probably the guy who convinced a Russian defector to give a nuclear blueprint to the Iranians.
As Risen tells it, the CIA prepared the Russian for the operation in a series of meetings at a luxury hotel in San Francisco. At one point, they handed the blueprints to the Russian.
Within minutes of being handed the designs, [the Russian] had identified a flaw. “This isn’t right,” he told the CIA officers gathered around the hotel room. “There is something wrong.” His comments prompted stony looks, but no straight answers from the CIA men in the room. No one in the San Francisco meeting seemed surprised by the Russian’s assertion that the blueprints didn’t look quite right, but no one wanted to enlighten him further on the matter, either.
In fact, the CIA case officer who was the Russian’s personal handler had been stunned by the Russian’s statement. During a break, he took the senior CIA officer aside. “He wasn’t supposed to know that,” the CIA case officer told his superior. “He wasn’t supposed to find a flaw.”
“Don’t worry,” the senior CIA officer calmly replied. “It doesn’t matter.”
The CIA case officer couldn’t believe the senior CIA officer’s answer, but he still managed to keep his fears from the Russian, and he continued to train him for his mission.
In February 2000, the Russian was flown to Vienna by himself to deliver the blueprints to Iran’s mission to the IAEA there. Worried that the CIA was framing him somehow, he wrote a letter to the Iranians that he included with the blueprints.
What is the purpose of my offer?
If you try to create a similar devise you will need to ask some practical questions. No problem. You will get answers but I expect to be paid for that. Let’s talk about details later when I see a real interest in it.
Now just take your time for professional study of enclosed documentation. My contact info on next page.
In other words, the Russian warned the Iranians that there was a flaw in the blueprints.
Three months later, in May 2000, Sterling appears to have been moved off the MERLIN operation and compartmented out of it. On August 2, 2000, Sterling first filed his employment discrimination suit against the CIA. In January 2002, his employment with the CIA ended. In April of that year, the CIA invoked state secrets in his employment discrimination lawsuit. And in January 2003, the CIA’s Publication Review Board told him to include false information in his memoirs. After the CIA rejected his settlement offer in February 2003, he first reached out to Risen. While he kept in contact with him, it may not have been until after Sterling’s employment discrimination suit was rejected in either 2004 (by the VA District Court) or 2005 (by the Appeals Court, though that seems too late to have been included in Risen’s book) that the story made it into Risen’s book.
In any case, this all seems to be about the CIA’s efforts to prevent you from knowing that it gave Iran nuclear blueprints in 2000.
Did NYT’s Editors Alert the Government to Risen’s Source?
Let me start by pointing to two data points about the case of Jeffrey Alexander Sterling–the source for James Risen’s reporting on MERLIN.
First, as DOJ’s press release alleges, Sterling first contacted Risen in February or March of 2003. The press release later reveals he first became aware that the FBI was investigating him for leaking classified information in June 2003.
The indictment alleges that beginning a few weeks later, in February and March 2003, Sterling made various telephone calls to the author’s residence, and e-mailed the author a newspaper article about the weapons capabilities of Country A. According to the indictment, while the possible newspaper article containing the classified information Sterling allegedly provided ultimately was not published in 2003, Sterling and the author remained in touch from December 2003 through November 2005 via telephone and e-mail.
According to the indictment, Sterling was aware by June 2003 of an FBI investigation into his disclosure of national defense information, and was aware of a grand jury investigation into the matter by June 2006, when he was served a grand jury subpoena for documents relating to the author’s book.
In other words, Sterling allegedly contacted Risen in early 2003, the NYT never published an article at that point (which would have been just as the Iraq war was starting). But by June 2003, the FBI was already investigating the alleged leak.
Through several months in late 2005, Mr. Risen and bureau chief Phil Taubman had clashed over whether Times editors would get a preview of the book’s closely guarded contents, sources said. It was not until Dec. 27—11 days after the wiretapping story had run—that Mr. Risen relented and allowed Mr. Taubman to see the manuscript. Mr. Risen insisted that senior editors who viewed the pre-publication copy sign nondisclosure agreements and agree not to discuss the book’s contents.
A Times spokesperson responded to questions about the Risen book by deferring to the paper’s Ethical Journalism Guidebook, which says reporters “must notify The Times in advance” when writing books related to their beats, “so The Times can decide whether to make a competitive bid to publish the work.”
In October 2004, Mr. Risen first presented editors with a story about the secret N.S.A. wiretapping program, the sources said. Late that same year, Mr. Risen also proposed writing a piece about an alleged foiled C.I.A. plot to deliver bogus atomic-bomb plans to Iran—another story that appears in State of War.
Mr. Risen left on book leave in January 2005. According to multiple sources, he told editors he was writing a book about former C.I.A. chief George Tenet—and did not reveal that he would be using previously reported Times material about the N.S.A. wiretapping in the book. [my emphasis]
So, according to DOJ, Risen first tried to publish a story on MERLIN in 2003. He tried again in late 2004 (after, it should be said, the NYT started protecting Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby in the Plame case). After that didn’t work, he went on book leave, saying he was writing about George Tenet and refusing to tell them it included the NSA story and the MERLIN story. His editors only found out what was included in the book on December 27.
But Risen demanded his editors sign a non-disclosure agreement before he would let them see the book.
Now, according to the NY Observer story, such non-disclosure agreements are routine for his publisher, Free Press.
A spokesperson for Mr. Risen’s publisher, Free Press, would not comment on who had viewed advance copies of the book, but said that the publishing house routinely asks for signed agreements under such circumstances. “In cases where the book is being considered for excerpting or the content of the book is sensitive and news-breaking, we will ask select media to sign a nondisclosure agreement,” the spokesperson said.
But that doesn’t explain the animosity over the book, starting at least from the time in 2004 when he first tried to publish the NSA wiretap and the MERLIN story.
Furthermore, we know that the NYT conducted extensive discussions with the government about publishing the NSA story from the first time they considered publishing it in October 2004. We should assume that they also conducted such discussions on the MERLIN story.
Which, DOJ tells us, would have been just months before the FBI started investigating this alleged leak.
Now, I’m not trying, in any way, to say that the NYT is responsible for the investigation into Sterling. As far as we know, they simply contacted the government for their view on the story (as they are doing, it should be said, on all the Wikileaks cables).
But do you honestly think the Bush White House would honor any agreement they might have with the NYT to not pursue the story?
There is one other possible explanation, of course: that the CIA learned of the story (either through the White House or other means), and not least because they were in a suit against Sterling and because getting him arrested for a leak would absolve them of any settlement with him, they alerted the FBI of a leak of classified information themselves.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder whether NYT’s courtesy of letting the government respond to potential stories is what first launched the FBI investigation into him.