[Marxism] Iran defends sovereign right to nuclear research -
peter.shield at decisionnews.com
Thu Jan 5 02:25:37 MST 2006
Whoops! Another clanger from that house of commedy the CIA.
>From the Guardian
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
Thursday January 5, 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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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"
C James Risen 2006
. This is an edited extract from State of War, by James Risen, published by
The Free Press
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