US v. Jeffrey Alexander Sterling
January 20, 2015 6:16 AM   Subscribe

"The CIA would have [given] Iran the actual [nuclear bomb] already constructed for them, but didn't because it wouldn't have been credible for their Russian to have it."

Operation Merlin was a CIA operation approved by the Clinton and Bush administrations to provide Iran with a flawed design for "the crown jewels" of a nuclear weapons program, ostensibly in order to delay the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons program.

"The U.S. government lacked evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program and not long after came out with an assessment that such a program did not exist and had not existed for some time. Nonetheless, years of effort and millions of dollars went into trying to slow the program down by a period of months."

"The CIA created a design, drawing, and parts list for a Russian nuclear fire set." .. "U.S. scientists spent 9 months building the device from the plans and then proceeded to test it in a lab. Then they introduced multiple 'flaws' into the plans and tested each flaw. Then they gave their flawed plans to their own team of scientists who weren't in on their cockamamie scheme. In five months, those scientists spotted and fixed enough of the flaws to build a fire set and get it to work in a lab."

"This was considered a success,"
despite the fact that the Iran had no active program according to the CIA's own intelligence.

James Risen asserts that Operation Merlin brought Iran significantly closer to nuclear weapons technology because Iranian nuclear scientists noticed flaws in the schematics the CIA's agent provided.

CIA case officer Jeffrey Sterling went to Congress with his story, now accused of having taken his story to James Risen as well. There are periodic updates on exposefacts.org and maybe dropthecharges.org.

Jeffrey Sterling's prosecutors have announced they will not to call reporter James Risen to testify.
posted by jeffburdges (46 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
As an aside, a panel hand-picked by CIA director John Brennan has exonerated the agency of wrongdoing in the hacking of senate computers (previously). John Kiriakou was interviewed on recent topics, including the Senate Intelligence Committee report.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:16 AM on January 20, 2015


One gets the feeling that there are people in positions of power to whom nuclear conflict is an abstraction on par with, say, having an embarrassing secret revealed at the office. Sure, short-term it's bad for the career, but it's not the end of the world, and anyway nobody would be crazy enough to actually pull the trigger!
posted by infinitewindow at 6:33 AM on January 20, 2015 [5 favorites]


I'm having a serious giggle reading about this operation.
posted by Slackermagee at 6:35 AM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


...their cockamamie scheme.
That phrase describes so many CIA operations that one has to wonder if Lucy Ricardo would have made a good CIA operative.

Even though the plan in the FPP predates him, the ongoing refusal of the CIA to admit to any kind of flawed decision making process is just further evidence that John Brennan Must Go.
posted by TedW at 6:37 AM on January 20, 2015 [5 favorites]


The problem is Israel keeps threatening a first-strike on Iran and so the US is taking a middle road by delaying nuclear development through subterfuge. Stuxnet set Iran back a few years, the world's first kinetic digital attack by one nation against another - the opening salvo of digital warfare. A major historical moment.

Not surprised about this revelation since the US did the same thing with the USSR and that program worked very well. The Soviet space shuttle was a "stolen" US design that was designed to never work. The great thing about this tactic, even if the US gets caught sending bad designs, it still works since Iran will now be suspicious of every piece of Western technology hacked or not. It's one of the few spy tactics that works even if you get caught. Maybe it did help the Iranians but do they have a working bomb yet? No evidence of test explosions.
posted by stbalbach at 6:52 AM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm having a serious giggle reading about this operation.

This is my "whaffuck?" face when I saw the FPP on the front page.
posted by infini at 6:57 AM on January 20, 2015


You know how in every episode of Homeland, there's (at least) a couple points where you're like, "How the hell is CARRIE in charge of a whole CIA operation, the CIA would be incredibly incompetent to put her in charge of anything!"

In real life they're far more incompetent. But still just as ruthless in covering up their failures.
posted by T.D. Strange at 7:04 AM on January 20, 2015 [6 favorites]


Never attribute to malice alone that which is adequately explained by stupidity and malice together.
posted by Poldo at 7:09 AM on January 20, 2015 [17 favorites]


I can't believe how incredibly incompetent and reckless this is.
posted by odinsdream at 7:11 AM on January 20, 2015


Maybe it did help the Iranians but do they have a working bomb yet? No evidence of test explosions.
stbalbach

Iran is in a very different position than North Korea, and even if they could build one it's probably a lot more beneficial for them to threaten to produce a bomb than to actually detonate one. Actually doing so might, for example, spook Israel into an attack.

In real life they're far more incompetent. But still just as ruthless in covering up their failures.
T.D. Strange

The really strange thing is that they don't really cover up their failures well. If you haven't you might want to read Tim Weiner's excellent Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA in which he goes into all of the CIA's idiot misadventures over the years based on FOIA documents and interviews. A lot of their failures have been known for a long time, people just don't seem to care.

It seems the CIA's greatest strength is its marketing ability, since it has the world convinced it's an organization of invincible super-competent ninja hackers.
posted by Sangermaine at 7:17 AM on January 20, 2015 [4 favorites]


The problem is Israel keeps threatening a first-strike on Iran...

That's funny, I thought the problem was a violent fundamentalist regime and major terror supporter seeking nuclear weapons.
posted by Behemoth at 7:21 AM on January 20, 2015


Nah, the Saudis so far are keeping their promise not to develop nukes of their own.
posted by notyou at 7:33 AM on January 20, 2015 [7 favorites]


The problem is Israel keeps threatening a first-strike on Iran

I wonder why the Israelis would do that, since Iran has never threatened Israel in any way at all.
posted by 1adam12 at 7:34 AM on January 20, 2015


Behemoth that's true but the US executive branch has had no interest in bombing Iran's nuclear facilities (Clinton, Bush, Obama). Unlike Israel who already bombed Syria's facility (pre-Syrian war) and has said they want to do the same in Iran "before it's too late". Your comment suggests you are Hawkish "bomb bomb bomb bomb Iran" (2007)
posted by stbalbach at 7:35 AM on January 20, 2015


One wonders if any of the scientists on the receiving end are still alive.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:55 AM on January 20, 2015


Beautiful Poldo. I had never considered the false dichotomy between malice and stupidity. Of course ... Never attribute to MS^2 what can be explained by SM^2
posted by vicx at 7:56 AM on January 20, 2015


That's funny, I thought the problem was a violent fundamentalist regime and major terror supporter seeking nuclear weapons.

Nah, Israel already has nukes ;)

Seriously though:
- I thought it was established at this point that Iran doesn't have the capability to make a nuclear weapon any time in the near future.

- And this story about Khomeini issuing a fatwa against nuclear and chemical weapons was bandied about and quoted by Obama/Clinton etc. Although how much faith one should be willing to put in something like that [even if it were true] is questionable.

So what's the problem with Iran having nuclear energy capabilities? It's not like far more unhinged governments don't already have bombs, and the world hasn't gone to nuclear hell yet.

Is Iran that big of a bogeyman in American eyes?
posted by xqwzts at 7:58 AM on January 20, 2015


I've apparently focussed too heavily on the incompetence and recklessness to the determent of flks reading about Jeffrey Sterling, which makes me sad since his case is really interesting. :(

It's interesting if similar strategies ever worked with a "real" nation like the USSR of course. I dubious however, obviously the USSR did gain the bomb eventually. If the CIA gave them anything then what's the proof it didn't help?

In particular, I could imagine actively deceiving the students in an exam in a mathematics course, presumably I could make most fail within the 3 hour exam window, but..

There are always the bright ones who'd cut through my ruses to produce the right answers. In their cases, any correct hints I gave would massively accelerate their through processes by providing them with ready made formulation that they cold quickly validate in their own heads.

It'd be different in software where "You basically cannot pay people enough to code review dull [boiler plate] code", but do you believe the CIA guys would really know the difference? I do not because that's a deep pedagogical issue.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:00 AM on January 20, 2015


The problem is Israel keeps threatening a first-strike on Iran

To clarify (quoting myself):
The problem is Israel keeps threatening a first-strike on Iran and so the US is taking a middle road by delaying nuclear development through subterfuge.
This is not to say John McCain and Israel are *wrong* in wanting to bomb bomb Iran (or that they are right) - but every President since Clinton has looked at it and concluded such a course of action would have worse outcomes then *not* bombing Iran. Israel and other Hawks disagree, so the US policy is to take a middle road of using coercive methods - Stuxnet, etc.. to both take action against Iran (which also placates the Hawks) while not going so far as attacking conventionally. The "problem" I mention is the conflict between US foreign policy (don't bomb Iran) and the Hawks who want to bomb Iran. The "solution" has been to use covert actions, such as this FPP.
posted by stbalbach at 8:01 AM on January 20, 2015


[Might be more interesting to talk in here about the operation at the core of the post than about the general political situation with the US/Iran/Israel.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:07 AM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


dubious however, obviously the USSR did gain the bomb eventually.

Actually, the USSR basically stole the bomb, getting rough plans and far more importantly, getting a lot of knowledge of what didn't work from the US weapons program, which meant that they didn't go down the same wrong paths. In particular, Klaus Fuch's information, both research he himself had done and research taken from others, enabled the Soviets to go from zero to Bomb in less than four years and to a fusion device in 6 -- not a Teller-Ulam staged device, but the slokia layered design that gave them a 400kt weapon a year before the Ivy Mike test of the Teller-Ulam design (they got that in 1955.)

The main reason it took four years was that, at the time, there were no known sources of uranium in the Soviet Union, so they had to go get that. One speculation as to why they held onto the Eastern Bloc so hard is that this was where they were getting their uranium, from East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

The "problem" I mention is the conflict between US foreign policy (don't bomb Iran) and the Hawks who want to bomb Iran.

See also the Kennedy Administrator, where you have Curtis LeMay and Thomas Powers yelling BOMB BOMB BOMB and RFK yelling ARE YOU NUTS? I think JFK put it best. "If you are at war, you want LeMay in the lead bomber. But you do not want LeMay deciding if you should go to war."
posted by eriko at 8:35 AM on January 20, 2015 [6 favorites]


Nah, the Saudis so far are keeping their promise not to develop nukes of their own.

Maybe.
posted by empath at 9:30 AM on January 20, 2015


Actually, the USSR basically stole the bomb, getting rough plans and far more importantly, getting a lot of knowledge of what didn't work from the US weapons program, which meant that they didn't go down the same wrong paths.

From what I understand, the hard part is just getting the uranium. Any country that has access to enriched uranium can build a bomb eventually, just from open source information.
posted by empath at 9:32 AM on January 20, 2015


TedW: That phrase describes so many CIA operations that one has to wonder if Lucy Ricardo would have made a good CIA operative.
She was a known corroborator with a Cuban who had strong ties in the entertainment industry.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:36 AM on January 20, 2015 [5 favorites]


Appears the CIA is doing some massive witness coaching according to this Huffington Post article :

Why the CIA Is So Eager to Demolish Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling

I'd missed that "Everyone agrees that Sterling went through proper channels to share his concerns and classified information with Senate Intelligence Committee staff in early March 2003". Why adhere to proper channels but simultaneously leak the same information? Just doing one or the other is safer.

Another likely theory emerges : A senator, staffer, CIA agent, etc. leaks it because they know there Senate will ignore information. Leaks are just political games for senate critters. I'll wager Sterling is actually innocent here.

If the Saudis wanted the bomb, they'd just pay for Jeb's presidential campaign, so he'd order the CIA to sell them some.. or maybe they'd rent bombs from the Israelis. I'm doubtful that Saudi Arabia's education system could train the physicists, mathematicians, and engineers to build the bomb, maybe they could hire Iranians along with a few Sunni technical bosses from Egypt.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:30 AM on January 20, 2015


Yup, Iran kicked us out, threw off a puppet government, made a state of their choosing, regardless of whether our internal allies liked it or not. A decade ago Iran had a population that was 70% under the age of thirty.

The idea that we allow our allies, without chastisement to bomb inside Iran is out of line with our stated values. That we have fronted for a continuous frame job to justify the actions of unnamed allies, is the worst sort of foolery. Iran is lucky, it doesn't have to be Syria right now. It isn't luck, they have unity within their nation. I am not a fan of Iran, but I also have no reason to feel emnity.

It is horrifying this kind of stupid is running the show on our end. With the privitization of security in the ME, and dedicated dollars buying outcomes, rather than coherent diplomacy, we're watching that unfold. What a mess. The hawks set to nest in the Senate won't improve the lives on the ground oh wait, yeah it's not about that, is it? Bless the whistleblowers, they shall know peace.
posted by Oyéah at 10:42 AM on January 20, 2015


The main reason it took four years was that, at the time, there were no known sources of uranium in the Soviet Union, so they had to go get that. One speculation as to why they held onto the Eastern Bloc so hard is that this was where they were getting their uranium, from East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

You forgot Poland

</bush joke>
posted by aydeejones at 3:37 PM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


Iran is a crazy case study in Anglo-Empire intervention. The damn country itself was renamed to destroy its Persian sense of identity (OK maybe I'm exaggerating that part, but what gives), England talked us into staging a coup against a democratically-elected progressive leader in the 1950's after previous meddling and failures running the country simply to usurp its oil, and shortly after the Ayatollas took over and declared America the Great Satan, our very own CIA provided a list of suspected leftists and communists to them (1982, three years after the revolution) which they gladly took under advisement and implemented (death and disappearing, of people Americans pointed out might be a problem to them).

They seemed so quaint in my childhood, those "crazy Iranians" -- I remember "The Iron Sheik" and the Ayatolla being the butt of jokes in the Naked Gun movies. In my 20's I had Iranian neighbors at one point who were the most neighborly-nice-here's-a-plate-of-dinner-because-your-girlfriend-left-you-and-you-eat-Taco-Bell-too-much people I ever met.
posted by aydeejones at 3:52 PM on January 20, 2015 [4 favorites]


The CIA murdered democracy in the Middle East in its crib for the oil profits.

70 years later we're still fighting wars there, allegedly in the name of "democracy".
posted by T.D. Strange at 4:47 PM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]












New post about Brown and Norton.
posted by homunculus at 8:09 PM on January 23, 2015










We'll need to follow Argentina's lead here :
Argentine president seeks to dissolve spy agency after murky death of state prosecutor
posted by jeffburdges at 11:15 PM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]




Just saw Silenced (trailer) at Transmediale, really good documentary. Worth an FPP. (kickstarter)
posted by jeffburdges at 4:15 AM on January 29, 2015










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