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article imageHow the CIA encouraged Iran to build a nuclear trigger

By Ralph Lopez     Mar 11, 2015 in World
A CIA plan may have allowed US intelligence to claim that it had solid proof Iran was actively trying to build the final critical component of a nuclear weapon, had Iran fallen for the deception.
An alleged whistleblower, who denies the charges against him, now faces up to 100 years in prison for exposing the plan.
According to declassified documents included as exhibits in Jeffrey Sterling's trial, the plan, dubbed "Operation Merlin," involved passing blueprints for a Russian design for a nuclear trigger to Iranian scientists.
The blueprints were originally for an actual design for a trigger which worked, but which had been altered and rendered incomplete by the CIA before being passed on, covertly, to the Iranians. By knowing which very specific and specialized parts were on a parts list which came with the blueprints, without the Iranians knowing that the plans were part of a CIA covert operation, US intelligence could determine if Iran was attempting to obtain any of those parts and then claim solid evidence that it was working on the final stages of a nuclear bomb, possibly as part of a public campaign advocating military action.
The trigger is the most difficult part of a nuclear weapon to fabricate, and is the stumbling block in most would-be proliferating countries' nuclear programs.
The declassified document reads:
"THE TERMINOLOGY AND LIST OF PARTS ARE SUFF.ICIENTLY SPECIFIC THAT WE STAND A GOOD CHANCE OF LEARNING WHETHER THE IRANIANS HAVE IN FACT ADOPTED THE DESIGN AND ARE TRYING TO MAKE IT WORK."
Followers of Sterling's trial note that a central part of the George W. Bush administration's case for war with Iraq was the claim, later shown to be partly based on a forged document, that Saddam Hussein was attempting to procure yellowcake uranium from the country of Niger. By furnishing Iran with blueprints and a specific parts list, and then seeing if Iran was attempting to obtain any of those parts, a similar alarming claim could have been made that Iran was actively in the final stages of a nuclear bomb.
Passage at page C02884 in declassified CIA exhibits on Operation Merlin.
Passage at page C02884 in declassified CIA exhibits on Operation Merlin.
cryptome.org
The claim would have been based on plans for a nuclear trigger given to Iran by the CIA itself.
Jeffrey Sterling has steadfastly maintained that he is innocent, and not the source of the leak to New York Times reporter James Risen, whose book "State of War" details the operation. The case has become a cause celebre for journalistic freedom advocates, who protested when Risen was subpoenaed to reveal his sources, one of which, the CIA alleges, was Sterling. Sterling is one of the agency's proportionately few African-American case officers, who was a handler of a Russian scientist who played a central part in the intended deception, according to the declassified documents. The Russian scientist, known only as "M" in the documents, was to act as greed-motivated former employee of a Soviet nuclear laboratory.
Risen won his request not to testify, citing First Amendment protections of the press. He has not said, however, whether or not Sterling was a source.
Sterling in fact took his concerns about the project through legitimate and prescribed channels, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, before which he gave testimony. Sterling was also involved in a race discrimination case against the CIA between 2000 and 2005.
Sterling was convicted of treason on evidence based on emails whose contents were not divulged, and CIA witnesses who were allowed to testify anonymously, from behind a screen. Among those testifying at his trial were former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. He now faces up to 100 years in prison. Sterling joins the list of whistleblowers and alleged whistleblowers prosecuted by the Obama administration, who include Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. The Obama administration currently holds the record for number of whistleblowers and alleged whistleblowers prosecuted: more than all other former presidents combined.
Iran officially denies attempting to procure a nuclear weapon.
In a letter which was the initial approach of the CIA to the Iranians, written by the Russian scientist and dropped off an an Iranian office in Vienna, the letter stated:
"I AM LOOKING FOR CONTACT DIRECTLY OR BY MIDDLEMAN TO GOVERNMENT AGENCIES OR GOVERNMENT REPRESENTATIVES OF YOUR COUNTRY. I POSES (sic) VERY IMPORTANT TECHNICAL INFORMATION ABOUT ONE OF THE MOST KEY DEVICES IN MODERN NUCLEAR TECHNOLOGY {DEVELOPMENT OF ATOMIC WEAPON)"
The Russian scientist, in the employ of the CIA and paid $60,000 per year for his part in the scheme, had trouble arousing interest among the Iranians for a time, until one of his correspondences was answered. In the declassified court exhibits, the scientist's CIA handlers write of the first expression of interest in the blueprints:
"WE...ARE PLEASED THAT M GOT THAT INTERESTING NIBBLE FROM IRAN, AND CONCUR WITH YOUR GUIDANCE TO HIM. WE WILL BE IN TOUCH SHORTLY ABOUT ARRANGING A MEETING"
Risen's book contends that Operation Merlin was much more fraught with hazards than the CIA will admit. Because the blueprint for the nuclear trigger was originally a working Russian version, but modified by the CIA in a manner which would render it inoperable, the blueprint nevertheless might have given valuable knowledge to Iranian scientists, says Risen, who would be able to reverse-engineer the missing details.
Peace advocates and citizen CIA watchdogs maintain the operation was less about throwing a monkey wrench into any existing nuclear bomb projects, and more about building a case for war.
In October, 2002, during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, US intelligence produced a classified, 90-page National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq's WMD programmes which cited reports that Iraq was "vigorously trying to procure" uranium from Niger and two other African countries.
In his January 2003 State of the Union speech, President George W. Bush said, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," in a statement which later became known as "The sixteen words." The statement was partly based on a document used by the CIA which was already known to be a forgery, according to Italian intelligence. The document became well-known across the Internet, and was mocked for, among other things, using outdated and incorrect letterhead from the government of Niger and the wrong official seal.
The letter was used nevertheless by the Bush administration to build the case for the invasion of Iraq, despite its fraudulent origins. Likely presidential candidate Jeb Bush recently conceded that the intelligence on which his brother based his case for invading Iraq was not "accurate." The former Florida governor couched the statement in a disclaimer that the intelligence was something that "everyone embraced," although Bush claims about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction programs were disputed at every step of the way by officials such as chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix.
Sterling faces sentencing in April, after being convicted under the Espionage Act on January 26, 2015, and now faces up to 100 years in prison. His wife sobbed uncontrollably as the verdict was read. Critics of the verdict believe Sterling is being scapegoated for a botched and perhaps illegal operation which caused embarrassment for the CIA upon the release of Risen's book.
US Attorney General Eric Holder said in a later press conference that the verdict was a “just and appropriate outcome.”
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