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 :: (1) comments

The Rhetoric of War: Rice Pushes Iran

Indications have been leaking out lately that the US is poised to strike against Iran, and Condi Rice'swords on Iran yesterday just continued to reinforce my impression that "something" is coming with Iran. Just what that something is, I'm not ready to say, but I do think the war of words is about to begin..again.

Iran rejection of nuclear deal becoming clear: Rice
Thu Jan 5, 2006 02:34 PM ET
By Carol Giacomo, Diplomatic Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Thursday Iran's resumption of atomic fuel research would signal its rejection of a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis, but stopped short of saying this would finally trigger a U.S. push for U.N. Security Council action.

Rice said she hoped "diplomacy has not been exhausted," but added that it was "becoming clearer" Iranians are not accepting a diplomatic compromise that constrains their nuclear ambitions.

Rice addressed State Department reporters after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Thursday Iran would resume atomic fuel research next week despite warnings from the West that this would endanger efforts to find a diplomatic compromise.

She said if Iran proceeded with sensitive nuclear research "it really will be a sign that they are not prepared ... to actually make diplomacy work."

Rice refused to be pinned down on a timeline for tougher diplomatic action, but said Washington will take the case to the Security Council at "a time of our choosing."

Another U.S. official, who is involved in nonproliferation issues but spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy, told Reuters if Iran went ahead with the research on Monday as announced, the United States and its European allies likely would call an early meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors and push to have Iran's case referred to the Security Council, which could impose broad international sanctions.

The IAEA board is due to meet in early March, but that meeting could be moved forward, maybe to February, the official said.


A European diplomat described the situation as much more fluid.

"The only thing I can say is we are intensifying our discussions but when and what kind of initiative will come out of it, it's still too early to say," said the diplomat, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

Posted by crimnos @ 7:51 AM :: (0) comments

Thursday, January 05, 2006

To Those Who Assert That Bush Can Exempt Himself From the Torture Ban

Show me where in the Constitution it states this. Here's all I can find:

Article II [The Presidency]
..Section 1. [Election, Installation, Removal]
..Section 2. [Presidential Power]
..Section 3. [State of the Union, Receive Ambassadors, Laws Faithfully Executed, Commission Officers]
..Section 4. [Impeachment]

Sections 1 and 4 are irrelevant, here's sections 2 & 3:

US Constitution, Article II posted:Section 2.

The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States; he may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices, and he shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.

He shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by law: but the Congress may by law vest the appointment of such inferior officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the courts of law, or in the heads of departments.

The President shall have power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.

Section 3.
He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in case of disagreement between them, with respect to the time of adjournment, he may adjourn them to such time as he shall think proper; he shall receive ambassadors and other public ministers; he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed, and shall commission all the officers of the United States.

Is the bolded phrase seriously what makes Bush think he has the power to pull shit like this? If the Supreme Court doesn't agree, there's always:

US Constitution, Article II posted:Section 4. The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

I'm assuming torture and illegal wiretaps are considered high crimes or misdemeanors.

Posted by crimnos @ 8:03 AM :: (0) comments

White House Told NSA Briefings Broke The Law

I had a long, complex response to this typed up, but I read this response from The Leading Brand on the SA Forums, and it pretty much sums up how I feel:

"For a guy who brays on about Jesus as much as the prez, it seems a tad ironic that he has a torture fetish.

It seems as though the words 'national security' in this administration are about akin to the word 'abracadabra' for a magician, except that when a magicial says abracadabra, some butterface with long legs disappears, and when the president says national security, someone with brown skin gets their genitals electrocuted."

Yep. Read on...

WASHINGTON - The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee told President Bush Wednesday that the White House broke the law by withholding information from the full congressional oversight committees about a new domestic surveillance program.

In a letter to Bush, Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., said the National Security Act requires the heads of the various intelligence agencies to keep the entire House and Senate intelligence committees "fully and currently informed of the intelligence activities of the United States."

Only in the case of a highly classified covert action can the president choose to inform a narrower group of Congress members about his decision, Harman said. That action is defined in the law as an operation to influence political, economic or military conditions of another country.

"The NSA program does not qualify as a 'covert action,'" Harman wrote.

Bush and his senior national security aides have said that appropriate members of Congress were briefed more than a dozen times about the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance operations, which Bush first approved the month after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The highly classified sessions are known to include the "Gang of Eight," which is made up of the top Republican and Democrat in the House and Senate and on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

"We believe that Congress was briefed appropriately," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Wednesday in response to Harman's letter.

Responding in writing to Harman, House Intelligence Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., said Harman had never previously raised concerns about the number of people briefed on the program.

"In the past, you have been fully supportive of this program and the practice by which we have overseen it," he wrote. "I find your position now completely incongruent."

Many details about the scope of electronic surveillance program remain unknown. However, Bush and his aides have asserted the monitoring — without court warrants — is narrowly targeted to eavesdrop on calls and e-mails of people who are inside the United States and suspected of communicating with al-Qaida or its affiliates.

Vice President Dick Cheney said Wednesday that the program helped to prevent possible terrorist attacks against the American people: "This program is critical to the national security of United States."

Democrats who have been briefed on the program have raised serious concerns about its legality, but not called for its immediate halt. Republicans and Democrats alike have called for hearings this year.

Posted by crimnos @ 7:59 AM :: (0) comments

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Bush signs torture ban, then immediately vows to break it.

I just don't even know what to say at this point. He's edged from buffoonish evil to cartoon evil. How long until he attempts to raid Castle Greyskull?

Bush could bypass new torture ban
Waiver right is reserved
By Charlie Savage, Globe Staff | January 4, 2006

WASHINGTON -- When President Bush last week signed the bill outlawing the torture of detainees, he quietly reserved the right to bypass the law under his powers as commander in chief.

After approving the bill last Friday, Bush issued a ''signing statement" -- an official document in which a president lays out his interpretation of a new law -- declaring that he will view the interrogation limits in the context of his broader powers to protect national security. This means Bush believes he can waive the restrictions, the White House and legal specialists said.

''The executive branch shall construe [the law] in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President . . . as Commander in Chief," Bush wrote, adding that this approach ''will assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the President . . . of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks."

Some legal specialists said yesterday that the president's signing statement, which was posted on the White House website but had gone unnoticed over the New Year's weekend, raises serious questions about whether he intends to follow the law.

A senior administration official, who spoke to a Globe reporter about the statement on condition of anonymity because he is not an official spokesman, said the president intended to reserve the right to use harsher methods in special situations involving national security.

''We are not going to ignore this law," the official said, noting that Bush, when signing laws, routinely issues signing statements saying he will construe them consistent with his own constitutional authority. ''We consider it a valid statute. We consider ourselves bound by the prohibition on cruel, unusual, and degrading treatment."

But, the official said, a situation could arise in which Bush may have to waive the law's restrictions to carry out his responsibilities to protect national security. He cited as an example a ''ticking time bomb" scenario, in which a detainee is believed to have information that could prevent a planned terrorist attack.

''Of course the president has the obligation to follow this law, [but] he also has the obligation to defend and protect the country as the commander in chief, and he will have to square those two responsibilities in each case," the official added. ''We are not expecting that those two responsibilities will come into conflict, but it's possible that they will."

David Golove, a New York University law professor who specializes in executive power issues, said that the signing statement means that Bush believes he can still authorize harsh interrogation tactics when he sees fit.

''The signing statement is saying 'I will only comply with this law when I want to, and if something arises in the war on terrorism where I think it's important to torture or engage in cruel, inhuman, and degrading conduct, I have the authority to do so and nothing in this law is going to stop me,' " he said. ''They don't want to come out and say it directly because it doesn't sound very nice, but it's unmistakable to anyone who has been following what's going on."

Posted by crimnos @ 7:56 AM :: (4) comments

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Abramoff plea bargain to bring corruption probe to Congress

From the Houston Chronicle:

WASHINGTON - A plea agreement between prominent lobbyist Jack Abramoff and federal prosecutors is expected this week, bringing a wide-ranging corruption probe to the doors of Congress, according to sources close to the investigation.

Abramoff, who collected millions of dollars in controversial fees from Indian tribes with interests in the gambling industry, reached a tentative deal with prosecutors in a Washington-based investigation late last week, according to one of the sources. The lobbyist has given expensive gifts to several members of Congress, including Rep. Tom DeLay, of Sugar Land, and prosecutors are examining whether lawmakers improperly aided Abramoff clients in return.

Barring a last-minute snag, the terms of Abramoff's plea bargain were expected to be announced in Washington as early as Tuesdat or Wednesday. People close to the case spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Abramoff also was working toward a deal with prosecutors in South Florida on an indictment there that was to go to trial next Monday, according to a source. A federal judge in South Florida has a hearing set for today in the case. Abramoff was charged with fraud in connection with the takeover of a fleet of gambling ships.

By reaching an agreement with Abramoff, federal investigators would gain the ultimate insider witness in a probe into favors the one-time king of Washington lobbyists gave members of Congress and possibly their staff members.

The terms of the plea deals, and whether they will be formally announced separately or together, could not be determined Monday.

Attorneys for Abramoff could not be reached for comment Monday. An Abramoff spokesman repeatedly has declined to comment on the investigation.

Abramoff would join former DeLay aide Michael Scanlon as critical guides for federal prosecutors. Scanlon, a former Abramoff business partner, has pleaded guilty to charges of bilking the tribes.

DeLay attorney Richard Cullen declined to comment Monday. He has said previously that there was no indication the congressman is in jeopardy from the Abramoff investigation.

"Mr. DeLay is not concerned about the potential of Mr. Abramoff cooperating with the government," Cullen said in a recent interview. "Mr. DeLay thinks everybody should be cooperating (with investigators) and telling the truth."

Cullen said he met with federal prosecutors early in the probe and offered them DeLay's cooperation. Asked if any DeLay records or documents had been subpoenaed by investigators, Cullen said no records were sought.

Posted by crimnos @ 8:19 AM :: (0) comments