The conviction Monday of former CIA case officer Jeffrey A. Sterling for leaking classified information to a reporter requires a review of the CIA’s once-covert operation to slow down Iran’s nuclear program.
The CIA effort, which began in 1997, tried to use a former Russian nuclear engineer to misguide Tehran’s scientists pursuing a nuclear bomb. The engineer was to pass on flawed Russian plans for a nuclear triggering device.
The complicated spy operation ended in January 2006 after it was disclosed in James Risen’s book “State of War .”
Called “Operation Merlin” by Risen — after the engineer’s code name — the program was described as not only a failure but as “one of the most reckless operations in the modern history of the CIA.” Risen said it was one that may have helped put nuclear weapons in the hands of a charter member of what President George W. Bush called the “axis of evil.”
In the intervening eight years, stories about this onetime highly secret CIA operation have continued to describe it as a botched effort and one that might have actually helped Iran. Those descriptions, of course, were based on the assumption that all the facts in the book were true.
But what has long been ignored were CIA warnings, starting in January 2006, that the book contained “serious inaccuracies” and that often anonymous sources were “unreliable.”
Back then, because operation details were still classified, the CIA could not provide facts to journalists to support government claims that some of the book’s information was incorrect.
The same problem occurred when, on Jan. 6, 2011, the Justice Department announced Sterling’s indictment, charging him with, among other things, leaking classified information about Merlin to Risen.
Neither Justice nor the CIA would describe what that “false and misleading information” was, and as a result hardly any stories about the indictment referred to the government’s claims about bad information.
Several times in the past two years, when I wrote about the Sterling case and Risen’s refusal to testify about his sources, my efforts to get that false information were unsuccessful.
But Sterling’s trial over the past two weeks provided a fuller, now-declassified background of the Merlin operation, showing what a complex effort it was. Government witnesses and agency memos challenged facts in the Risen book and showed the Merlin operation was still going until January 2006.
Publication of Risen’s book “shut it down completely and made all of our efforts for naught” was the court testimony on Jan. 14 of Bob S., who was the CIA’s operations director in its nuclear counterproliferation unit and overseer of the Merlin program.
Risen’s attorney, Joel Kurtzberg, said in an e-mail that neither he nor Risen would have any comment.
Risen’s book says, “The Russian was supposed to believe that he was handing over genuine nuclear designs.”
In Vienna in late February 2000 to deliver the materials to an Iranian mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Russian, according to Risen’s book, “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 these blueprints — so he decided to mention that fact to the Iranians in his letter.”
Risen’s book reprints the letter, saying the Russian later gave the CIA a copy.
The CIA trial witnesses and agency memos tell a different story.
The agency plan always was that the schematics and drawings would have some obvious flaws — and the Russian engineer was told about them. It also was part of the plan from the start that the design materials were to be accompanied by a letter from the Russian noting some errors. A Jan. 10, 2000, CIA memo carries a draft of what it describes as “the letter to be included in the package of material.”
It has elements almost word for word found in the letter as printed in the Risen book, but it was written cooperatively with CIA input and made part of the document package for the Iranians more than a month before the Russian arrived in Vienna.
A second CIA memo that day said that the letter draft would “acknowledge that what he is providing initially is incomplete” and in it “there should be a very clear message that he expects to be paid for the rest of the details they will need if they want to build the device.”
That was the hook that was supposed to get the Iranians to stay in touch with Merlin.
The Russian dropped the package off on March 3, 2000, according to a May 5, 2000, CIA memo, which reported that the deception materials were taken “seriously” by the Iranians who “couriered them back to Iran rather then rejecting them at the outset.”
The next step was to see whether the Iranians would try to contact the Russian.
Bob S. testified that no contact had been made before the Risen book was published but that the agency had expected it could take years before the Iranians got to a point where they were attempting to build the triggering device.
In fact, the CIA reported in a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that Iran may have halted nuclear warhead activity in 2003, at least temporarily.
The Sterling case should be a lesson that not all secret information passed to journalists is totally true and that government claims that such information may be inaccurate are not totally false.
What is true is that the whole story of Merlin would make a great movie.
For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.