The Justice Department on Thursday charged a former CIA clandestine officer with leaking classified information about a secret U.S. effort to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program to New York Times reporter James Risen.
Jeffrey Alexander Sterling, who served in the CIA between 1993 and 2002, was arrested by the FBI in St. Louis Thursday and charged in a 10-count indictment with disclosing national defense information and obstruction of justice. At his arraignment later in the day, U.S. Magistrate Judge Terry I. Adelman told him he would be detained through the weekend because the government had declared him a danger to the community. Another detention hearing was scheduled for 2 p.m. Monday.
The case involves the disclosure in Risen’s 2006 book, “State of War,” of a CIA program called “Operation Merlin.” Risen described it as a botched attempt under the Clinton administration to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program by giving flawed blueprints for key components to a Russian nuclear scientist who had defected. The idea was that the Russian scientist, who was covertly working for the CIA, would feed the flawed designs to the Iranians. But according to the book, the CIA’s efforts went awry when the scientist got nervous and instead tipped off the Iranians to the flaws in the designs. According to Risen, this ended up helping Iran “accelerate its weapon development.” The CIA has always insisted that Risen’s reporting was “inaccurate.”
The indictment essentially charges Sterling with leaking to Risen information about the Iranian program in retaliation for the handling of an employment discrimination case he filed against the CIA. It states that Sterling, who worked in the CIA between May 1993 and January 2002, had served for part of that time as the chief operations officer handling a “human asset” in a program related to the weapons capabilities of a foreign country.
Then in April 2003, according to the indictment, Risen contacted the CIA’s public affairs director to say that he planned to write a story about the classified program. That prompted U.S. government officials to meet with Risen and representatives of the Times about the “national security implications” of publishing such information. The Times never published Risen’s story. A senior government official familiar with the case told NBC that Condoleezza Rice, then national security advisor under President George W. Bush, was among those who urged the Times not to publish Risen’s information.
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.
It appears Operation Merlin was an operation to give Iran incorrect nuclear blueprints. It appears to have come to light because a disgruntled former ops officer included it in his memoirs in retaliation for losing his discrimination suit. It is certain that Sterling was an Operations Officer in the CIA’s Near East and South Asia division from 1993 to 2001, so he may well the be operations officer assigned to this case given the first person details.
This would obviously be far from the first time that the US’s plotting has backfired in its face. Given the sensitivity of the data involved, however, I would have hoped that someone along the way would have showed some common sense. Giving a defecting nuclear scientist plans that may be within has capability to fix is a dumb idea, and continuing the operation even after he realizes this despite the ability to pull the plug is insane.
The reason that this has come up so recently is that charges have just been unsealed against Sterling. What is interesting are the subpoenas on Risen, since
Justice Department rules say prosecutors may seek subpoenas of journalists only if the information they are seeking is essential and cannot be obtained another way.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment about why Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. approved seeking a subpoena of Mr. Risen in light of the fact that prosecutors could obtain an indictment of Mr. Sterling without it.
One possibility is that John Brennan is pushing the Justice Department to do this to punish Risen for breaking the story about the warrantless wiretapping program which Brennan headed through 2005. Brennan is currently serving as a quasi-Director of National Intelligence on the new National Security Council in order to avoid confirmations which he probably can’t pass.
I guess the moral of the story is, if you’re trying to keep your operation to give nuclear secrets to rogue states quiet, give your officers money to shut up and go away if they ask for it.
See also Ex-CIA officer accused of leak waives extradition: The indictment did not say specifically what information was leaked, but the dates and other details indicate the case centered on leaks to James Risen, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times. His 2006 book “State of War” revealed details about the CIA’s covert spy war with Iran.