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Plugging the Leaks
Barack Obama hates leaks, and thanks to a tenacious prosecutor, the Justice Department is on its way to setting a record for leak prosecutions. By Shane Harris
Comments () | Published July 21, 2010
On New Year’s Eve in 2005, a small group of CIA officials had their evening plans cut short by an urgent message from the White House. President Bush’s advisers had learned that James Risen, a reporter at the New York Times, was about to blow the lid on the CIA’s five-year-long plan to derail Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.

Risen had devoted a chapter in his new book, State of War, to a covert operation called Merlin, which involved a high-stakes gamble to feed the Iranians blueprints for a nuclear-triggering device. The blueprints contained a hidden flaw, and the CIA bet that Iranian engineers would waste years trying to build the component to no avail. The agency thought Merlin was the United States’ best chance of keeping Iran from building an atomic weapon. To expose Merlin now would tip off Iran to what America’s spies had been doing and what they might try in the future.

Bush’s White House aides looked for a way to stop Risen’s book from reaching the shelves. They considered whether his publisher, Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, could be persuaded or even required to halt the release. But the book was due to go on sale in three days. Short of standing in the way of the delivery trucks, there was no way of keeping the information from public view.

The White House made photocopies of Risen’s chapter on Merlin and sent the pages to the CIA’s headquarters in Langley. There, the senior officers who’d been “read in” to the Merlin program were shocked by Risen’s detailed account of it.

He revealed that the agency had used a former Soviet nuclear engineer, a post–Cold War defector, to deliver the blueprints to Iranian diplomats in Vienna at Iran’s mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Russian was to pose as an unemployed scientist, hoping to sell nuclear secrets. Once the Iranians saw what the Russian carried, the CIA thought Iran would be eager to buy the plans for Tehran. But Risen also revealed that the flaw in the blueprints wasn’t well hidden. The Iranians could disregard it and use the rest of the design to accelerate their weapons program, which was the opposite of what the CIA had intended.

Risen’s chapter read like a spy novel. Written partly from the scientist’s perspective, it contained his personal thoughts and misgivings as well as dialogue the scientist had had with his CIA handlers.

“My God,” thought one CIA official who had worked on the program as he read Risen’s chapter, “who gave him all this information?”

Risen’s book revealed other intelligence gaffes, including a 2004 incident in which the CIA inadvertently revealed the identity of its own spies in Iran to the Iranian foreign intelligence service. The spies were identified and taken out of commission. That gaffe, combined with the dangerous Merlin mission, raised a troubling question, Risen writes: “whether the CIA is blind in Iran, unable to provide any significant intelligence on one of the most critical issues facing the United States—whether Tehran was about to go nuclear.”

Inside the CIA, senior officials exploded.

“There’s no question,” another former senior CIA official says, “that by showing that kind of leg to the Iranians, they know a lot more and can surmise a lot more about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. And that affects other activities.”

To get the kind of detail in the Merlin chapter, Risen’s sources had to give him, or point him toward, some of the most tightly held secrets in American intelligence. He’d gotten to the heart of Merlin, which, as the other former official describes it, involved some high-tech ideas that hadn’t been used in the field. “It was very Buck Rogers,” the former official says. “To reinitiate that type of technical program against the Iranians would be exponentially more difficult if they had read Risen’s book.”

But was the CIA crying wolf? By the time State of War hit bookstores, the agency was shutting down Merlin because it hadn’t produced much useful intelligence. Also, the total price tag for the operation was approaching $100 million. Judged by its original goal—to set back Iran’s nuclear program—Merlin was a failure. Arguably, the public had a right to know that, particularly because government officials were hinting at military strikes in Iran to degrade its capacity for making weapons.

But classified information had been breached, so the Justice Department began an investigation into who had leaked to Risen. As in every leak investigation, anyone on the intelligence community’s so-called “bigot list”—the names of people cleared to know about a program—could be interviewed, and that person would be asked about any previous contact with the reporter. The former CIA official remarks that he’d never met Risen “but I hope he rots in jail.”

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 07/21/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles