Friday, January 06, 2006

Flying Blind: How we Lost Our Vision into Iran and How We Might Have Given Them the Bomb

Absolutely fascinating story in the Guardian yesterday first exposing how the CIA's intelligence network in Iran was blinded by one stupid mistake, as well as a plan by the Clinton Administration's CIA to provide Iran with false nuclear blueprints that ended in. Read on...

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 times before.

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 unknown.

This espionage disaster...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 go nuclear.

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...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 fallen short.

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.

...

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.

...

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.

...

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.

...

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"

Posted by crimnos @ 8:07 AM

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Wow. I completely missed this story. Thanks for the heads up.

As usual, great post.

Posted by Blogger alice_pants @ 1:19 AM #
 
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