CIA Doesn’t Want You To Know It Gave Iran Nuclear Blueprints

Here’s what I think happened with Jeffrey Alexander Sterling, the former CIA officer who just got arrested for leaking classified information to James Risen.

As I noted in the timeline, Sterling was assigned to an operation in November 1998. Given that the DOJ press release specifies that Sterling was “the operations officer assigned to handle a human asset associated with that program,” and given that Risen’s MERLIN story includes first person details from the case officer managing a Russian scientist asked to leak a nuclear blueprint to the Iranians, it seems that Sterling was that case officer.

In other words, Sterling was probably the guy who convinced a Russian defector to give a nuclear blueprint to the Iranians.

As Risen tells it, the CIA prepared the Russian for the operation in a series of meetings at a luxury hotel in San Francisco. At one point, they handed the blueprints to the Russian.

Within minutes of being handed the designs, [the Russian] 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 in the room. No one in the San Francisco 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.

In fact, the CIA case officer who was the Russian’s personal handler had been stunned by the Russian’s statement. During a break, he took the senior CIA officer aside. “He wasn’t supposed to know that,” the CIA case officer told his superior. “He wasn’t supposed to find a flaw.”

“Don’t worry,” the senior CIA officer calmly replied. “It doesn’t matter.”

The CIA case officer couldn’t believe the senior CIA officer’s answer, but he still managed to keep his fears from the Russian, and he continued to train him for his mission.

In February 2000, the Russian was flown to Vienna by himself to deliver the blueprints to Iran’s mission to the IAEA there. Worried that the CIA was framing him somehow, he wrote a letter to the Iranians that he included with the blueprints.

What is the purpose of my offer?

If you try to create a similar devise you will need to ask some practical questions. No problem. You will get answers but I expect to be paid for that. Let’s talk about details later when I see a real interest in it.

Now just take your time for professional study of enclosed documentation. My contact info on next page.

In other words, the Russian warned the Iranians that there was a flaw in the blueprints.

Three months later, in May 2000, Sterling appears to have been moved off the MERLIN operation and compartmented out of it. On August 2, 2000, Sterling first filed his employment discrimination suit against the CIA. In January 2002, his employment with the CIA ended. In April of that year, the CIA invoked state secrets in his employment discrimination lawsuit. And in January 2003, the CIA’s Publication Review Board told him to include false information in his memoirs. After the CIA rejected his settlement offer in February 2003, he first reached out to Risen. While he kept in contact with him, it may not have been until after Sterling’s employment discrimination suit was rejected in either 2004 (by the VA District Court) or 2005 (by the Appeals Court, though that seems too late to have been included in Risen’s book) that the story made it into Risen’s book.

In any case, this all seems to be about the CIA’s efforts to prevent you from knowing that it gave Iran nuclear blueprints in 2000.

  1. WilliamOckham says:

    A few quick details on Sterling. According to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, he was “Operations Officer in the CIA’s Near East and South Asia division from 1993 to 2001”.

    Laura Rozen (pretty reliable) says the indictment recounts:

    Sterling’s claims that he was hindered from advancing in the CIA operations division because of his race, with one agency supervisor allegedly saying that Sterling, as an African-American, would visibly stick out trying to recruit Iranians at the station in Germany where he was based under cover of being a military officer.

    According to his employment complaint (on Findlaw), Sterling worked in New York when he was subject to the alleged discrimination. “Complainant arrived in New York January 1999.”

    So, I guess NESA is headquartered in New York (or used to be). I did not know that…

    • Teddy Partridge says:

      The CIA would clearly have a hard time utilizing an African-American staffer; it’s not like America has any strategic interests in parts of the world where he would NOT “stick out.”


      • emptywheel says:

        Which of course is all the more ironic given how many now-retired top CIA people came through Africa (including James Pavitt and Tyler Drumheller). That’s where we trained everyone up in the 70s.

        But apparently we couldn’t do that with a black officer.

        • WilliamOckham says:

          I’m starting to wonder if being assigned to Merlin was part of the effort to dump him. Merlin had to come from high up and Sterling’s immediate bosses probably didn’t want to touch the thing (it was a pretty obviously stupid thing to do), so they gave it to the black guy. When that didn’t work to run him off, they gave him the recruit 3 spies in 2 months task which is patently absurd.

  2. tjbs says:

    Actually the CIA doesn’t want you to know a damn thing about what they do, who they do it to and who they did in. You can’t even know how much we spend on this “enhanced” intelligence outfit of moral misfits.

    • emptywheel says:

      I’ve never seen a connection between the two alleged, but given that the laptop of death came from the US-backed terrorists that Rudy was just paling around with, it might be that we fed them the blueprints.

      Or maybe Mossad made both.

      Incidentally, Porter did an update to that story last year–I’ll see if I can find it.

      • emptywheel says:

        Here it is.

        The most important intelligence documents used to argue that Iran had a covert nuclear weapons research and development programme in 2003 – a set of technical drawings of efforts to fit what appears to be a nuclear payload into the reentry vehicle of Iran’s medium-range ballistic missile, the Shahab-3 – turn out to have a fatal flaw: the drawings depict a reentry vehicle that had already been abandoned by the Iranian missile programme in favour of an improved model.

  3. MarkH says:

    What could Republicans do to embarrass Clinton more than the ‘accidental’ release of nuclear plans to a country Republicans *might* want to attack a few years later?

    Never dismiss such horrendous ideas because they just seem too far out.

    OTOH, the plan to put something out there and then to trace it to see who is connected to who is also interesting. It seems they’ve done that or something like it.

  4. pdaly says:

    Interesting timing. Just this week on NPR I was listening to “someone” being interviewed about this Merlin project, although I don’t recall them speaking the code name.

    As the man on NPR explained that Iran figured out the fatal flaws in the CIA blueprints, but I kept wondering when he’d mention the Russian nuclear scientist’s role in warning Iran. The man never mentions the Russian.

  5. papau says:

    FDL Book Salon needs to do “JFK and the Unspeakable-Why he Died and why it Matters”

    It explains a lot about the GOP hard right and there concept of freedom and what is patriotism and doing good for the country (albeit it does not go into the Dulles decision to make the CIA the arm of the corporations rather than the arm of United States policy).

    Sad that it took 58 years for something as clear and complete about the CIA conspiracy and assassination of JFK.

  6. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    In any case, this all seems to be about the CIA’s efforts to prevent you from knowing that it gave Iran nuclear blueprints in 2000.

    Even more interesting in view of the July 2003 Plame outing. Wonder how much Val ever knew about that 2000 blueprint handoff. And so many of those players involved in Iran-Contra.

    Golly, if I had a mind to do it, I could probably go google ‘cliff may + iran + foam at the mouth’ to watch a recent video of a neocon lambasting Obama for not bombing the holy sh*t out of Iran.

    I don’t expect to ever understand the layers of this onion.