In Convicting Jeff Sterling, CIA Revealed More Than It Accused Him of Revealing

Some Americans have heard of New York Times reporter and book author James Risen and his refusal to expose a source. But, because most reports on that matter scrupulously avoided the subject of what it was Risen had reported, relatively few people can tell you. In fact, Risen reported (in a book, as the New York Times obeyed a government request to keep it quiet) that back in the year 2000 the CIA gave nuclear weapons plans to Iran. Flaws had been introduced into the plans, with the stated intention of slowing down an Iranian nuclear weapons program if one existed. Risen’s reporting that the flaws were glaringly obvious, including to the former-Russian asset assigned to deliver the plans to Iran, made the scheme look even worse than it at first sounds.

Jeffery Sterling, a CIA handler of the former-Russian asset, was convicted earlier this year of being Risen’s source. He was convicted on the basis of the sort of circumstantial evidence known as “meta-data” that the NSA maintains we’re not supposed to worry about, but which an appeals court on Thursday ruled the bulk collection of unconstitutional. Sterling is expected to be sentenced Monday to a lengthy prison term.

During the course of Sterling’s trial, the CIA itself made public a bigger story than the one it pinned on Sterling. The CIA revealed, unintentionally no doubt, that just after the nuclear weapons plans had been dropped off for the Iranians, the CIA had proposed to the same asset that he next approach the Iraqi government for the same purpose. The CIA revealed this by entering into evidence this cable:

Mr. S., also known as Bob S., was and is a CIA officer. M is short for Merlin which is code for the former Russian and also the name of the operation (Operation Merlin). The cable refers to a more adventurous extension of the operation to somewhere other than Iran. The name for this other location begins with a vowel, because it follows the indefinite article “AN.”

Look closely at the text of the cable. The letters line up in vertical columns as well as the usual horizontal rows. It’s a grid. The missing word on the seventh line begins with a vowel and has five letters. It can be IRAQI or OMANI.

Keep reading. The missing word on the tenth line has four letters. It is either IRAQ or OMAN.

There follows a discussion of a meeting place, which is likely not in Iraq (or Oman).

Read to the last line. There the missing word has six letters. It can be IRAQIS or OMANIS.

The circumstantial evidence for choosing Iraq over Oman as the second target for Operation Merlin is far more weighty than what was used to convict Jeffrey Sterling of informing the public of the first target. Oman has never been alleged publicly by anyone of having or pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Oman has never been known to be a target of U.S. military action. Iraq in 2000 had been the target of multiple CIA-backed coup attempts. Iraq’s weaponry was a top focus of the CIA. Within two years, claims about Iraqi weaponry would be used by the CIA to support the U.S. attack on Iraq that would come in March 2003.

The 2002-2003 claims by then-President George W. Bush and then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice that a smoking gun could come from Iraq in the form of a mushroom cloud take on a different light when we learn that some short time earlier the CIA had proposed to give Iraq nuclear weapons plans as part of a program that Condoleezza Rice personally persuaded the New York Times not to reveal.

In 1995, Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law Hussein Kamel had informed U.S. and British intelligence officers that “all weapons—biological, chemical, missile, nuclear were destroyed.” Yet, on October 2, 2002, President Bush said, “The regime has the scientists and facilities to build nuclear weapons, and is seeking the materials needed to do so.” This was a claim he would also put in a letter to Congress and in his 2003 State of the Union Address.

Vice President Dick Cheney went so far as to claim, on March 16, 2003, on Meet The Press, “And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.”

There was no evidence for this, of course, and pretended evidence was carefully manufactured, including forged documents purporting to show that Iraq was trying to buy uranium, and an incorrect analysis of aluminum tubes that had to be carefully sought out after all the usual experts refused to provide the desired answer.

“We do know that there have been shipments going . . . into Iraq . . . of aluminum tubes that really are only suited to — high-quality aluminum tools [sic] that are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs,” said Condoleezza Rice on CNN’s Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer on September 8, 2002.

When the experts at the Departments of Energy, State, and Defense refused to say that aluminum tubes in Iraq were for nuclear facilities, because they knew they could not possibly be and were almost certainly for rockets, a couple of guys at the Army’s National Ground Intelligence Center near Charlottesville, Va., were happy to oblige. Their names were George Norris and Robert Campus, and they received “performance awards” (cash) for the service. Then Secretary of State Colin Powell used Norris’ and Campus’ claims in his U.N. speech despite the warning of his own staff that they weren’t true.

The U.S. government has never engaged in any such efforts to falsely portray Oman as pursuing nuclear weapons.

Did the CIA follow through with Merlin and actually give anything to the Iraqi government? Did it provide nuclear weapons plans as with Iran? Did it provide nuclear weapons parts, as originally conceived for Iran but not followed through on?

We don’t know. But we know that the CIA continued paying “Merlin” and his wife for some service. As Marcy Wheeler pointed out, “altogether, the CIA paid the Merlins roughly $413,223.67 over the 7 years after James Risen supposedly ruined Merlin’s usefulness as an asset.” For all we know, we taxpayers are still funding the Merlin household.

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