Walter Pincus’ Great Intelligence Work

Walter Pincus had a piece yesterday purporting to lay out the inaccuracies in the chapter of James Risen’s State of War. In it, he includes this passage.

In Vienna in late February 2000 to deliver the materials to an Iranian mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Russian, according to Risen’s book, “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 these blueprints — so he decided to mention that fact to the Iranians in his letter.”

Risen’s book reprints the letter, saying the Russian later gave the CIA a copy.

The CIA trial witnesses and agency memos tell a different story.

The agency plan always was that the schematics and drawings would have some obvious flaws — and the Russian engineer was told about them. It also was part of the plan from the start that the design materials were to be accompanied by a letter from the Russian noting some errors. A Jan. 10, 2000, CIA memo carries a draft of what it describes as “the letter to be included in the package of material.”

It has elements almost word for word found in the letter as printed in the Risen book, but it was written cooperatively with CIA input and made part of the document package for the Iranians more than a month before the Russian arrived in Vienna.

Now, I think the trial did show that there were some inaccuracies in the book — the one the Merlins cared most about is that they weren’t defectors.

But I find it really curious that Pincus claims these were errors. I say it’s curious because unless I’m mistaken, the transcripts for all the CIA witnesses save Bill Harlow have not been loaded onto the docket and so probably aren’t yet done. And in the 5 of 6 days of testimony I attended (including all but a few minutes of Bob S’ testimony, whom Pincus cites by name), I didn’t see Pincus in the courtroom once. And with the exception of Merlin himself, the CIA witnesses I missed, for the most part, talked about issues other than the Merlin operation. So it’s unclear where Pincus got his understanding of CIA witness testimony, and what he got is inaccurate.

Indeed, in this limited example, Pincus makes two pretty significant errors: in suggesting Merlin was supposed to know about the flaws in (as opposed to the incompleteness of) the blueprints, and in suggesting the CIA is certain about what Merlin left at the IAEA in March 2000.

First, the flaws. Throughout discussions about this operation, there has been some confusion between the flaws and the incompleteness, which has allowed the CIA to push back on the story when in fact the CIA records show this may be a convenient way to claim Risen’s book was wrong when what the CIA thought is meaningless if the Russians still had concerns. While Merlin was told the blueprints were incomplete, he was not told about the flaws the nuclear lab (probably Sandia) put in the blueprints that were supposed to prevent the Iranians from using them (but only held back a national lab team 3 months in using the same blueprints). According to my notes, for example, Bob S said they “didn’t want to say [the blueprints] were intentionally flawed,” to Merlin. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that Merlin and (far more importantly) the other Russian asset involved in this operation saw what they believed were problems that would make the blueprints not serve the purpose the Russians believed they were supposed to serve, and there is reason to believe that those concerns were never adequately addressed.

In addition, as I noted in this Salon piece yesterday, CIA doesn’t actually have the final version of what Merlin left with the IAEA. They claim — with questionable credibility, which I’ll return to — not to know what was in the formal letter Merlin left. Bob S himself agreed in his testimony that Pincus supposedly reviewed that Merlin is the only person who knows what he put in the final version. At the very least the story the CIA tells is that Merlin took a copy of the letter drafted in conjunction with the CIA to Vienna but with the nuke references altered to make sure he could get through customs (Bob S called it “sanitized”), then changed them back on the hotel computer and printed a fresh copy (note, earlier in this process, Merlin at times sent stuff off to the Iranians before the CIA had a chance to review it, so he had a history of freelancing). He then destroyed the disk he used, meaning no one — according to what Merlin told CIA  — has a copy (though the almost-final version without any last minute changes would reside on Merlin’s poorly secured home computer). Interestingly, Risen’s book says Merlin wrote a report back, but Bob S and Merlin (apparently) claim he did not.

But that printed letter is not all Merlin left with the blueprints. He also left a handwritten letter in his  packet of newspaper-wrapped nuclear blueprints — what Bob S called a “cover note.” The current story — relying on an earlier idea floated during the drafting period but not formally adopted — is that the cover note would help alert the Iranian staffers to the ultimate intended recipient of the letter. But that letter was by all appearances ad-libbed by Merlin. So we only have Merlin’s word for what he wrote.

Now these are just two details — details in Risen’s book that Pincus claims were disproven by cables and Bob S’ testimony — but which were anything but.

I will have a much longer summary of all the other details that came out at trial that made it clear the operation was an even bigger shitshow than Risen’s report makes out. But for the moment, I’m just curious what Pincus is trying to accomplish. Perhaps he was in the back of the courtroom for a tiny part of Bob S’ testimony and neither I nor the several other journalists I asked noticed him. But (at least as far as testimony) it appears he’s working off second-hand claims about what the record says and claiming, falsely, that they specifically disprove Risen’s book.


Why would whoever provided Pincus this partial view of Bob S’ testimony be so desperate to claim that Risen’s book was proven wrong?

10 replies
  1. Peterr says:

    Why the pushback? Two non-mutually exclusive possibilities come to mind . . .
    #1: Corporate Fear
    Accepting the version from the trial means that the Merlins apparently didn’t trust their CIA handlers 100%, and chose to hedge their bets as you put it. The last thing the CIA wants is for the agents they are running to get the idea that they know better than the folks at Langley, and start following the example of the Merlins.
    From the CIAs point of view, it’s far better to say “this was the plan all along”, to keep other agents from getting nervous or uppity or simply quitting on them. One freelancing agent causes heartburn; the thought of dozens of them induces panic attacks.
    Desperate times call for desperate measures . . .

    #2: Personal Fear
    Whoever was tasked with running the Merlins had to be pissed off at discovering via Risen’s book that the Merlins didn’t follow orders to the letter out of less-than-100% trust in the CIA in general and in him in particular. Once the anger dissipated, however, a bit of fear probably began to creep in, as the handler imagined the conversation to come with his/her boss. Sure enough, the phone rings and an angry voice says “You told us it was all just fine. You told us the Merlins were doing just what we said. You told us there were no hitches here, and now we hear this? What the hell is going on?”
    Thinking quickly, our intrepid spy-handler says “We can fix this. I’ve got a tame reporter eating out of my hand, and I’ll feed him a little disinformation so that Risen is discredited and our hands are clean.”
    There’s a long pause on the phone, then the voice says “OK, give it a try. But this better work, or it’s your ass.” Click.
    Yeah, I think that’d cause a fair amount of desperation — certainly enough for our intrepid spy-handler to do something stupid.

    • emptywheel says:

      Bob S, as it happens, was the guy in charge of the op (though current Acting DIA head David Shedd was in the loop as well). In one of his interviews with the FBI, he said he was in charge of most everything. But in his sworn testimony, he ascribed a lot of the operation to the “generals” who approved his work as a “colonel” (so presumably Shedd), and more of the operation itself to Sterling.

      So yeah, Bob S is worried. What are the chances that Bob S told Pincus himself what he claimed to have said on the stand?

      • Bewildered says:

        I get the mystery in your final question but…
        Am I being dense here, or is there a Lewis Carroll element to what appears to be the likelihood(?) certainty (?) of whoever is squirming in Langley has leaked classified information to Pincus to set the record straight about something that came up in a trial about leaking classified information?

        Or is this not the case because it pertains only to testimony not yet in the public record, with no classified aspects to it?

        If I am not missing something, is there a way to spell that aspect out as such in a few declarative sentences as a stand-alone for those in the MSM who prefer things in crayon?

        • emptywheel says:

          What CIA is probably trying to do is use the event of having had information declassified as an opportunity to launder propaganda through Pincus. His claims would not be classified in any case, because they are mostly untrue. But even if they were what Bob S actually testified to, they have now been declassified.

    • Anon says:

      While I think that you are on with #1 in part this may also be an effort just to add to their claims that Jeffrey Stirling put things at risk. If they claim that Merlin did this out of fear for himself or mishandling by Stirling then they are not at risk.
      Just a thought.

  2. Anon says:

    Perhaps they are also just trying to muddy the waters generally.
    Consider the torture report. So many different leaks, off the record comments, and prevarications have been made that it takes a determined sleuth like Marcy to find any hard evidence. By the time the report came out many reporters and most of the general public have found it difficult to separate all the FUD from the reality and the report itself has been softened.
    By leaking something that seems to undercut Risen they may just be trying to sow enough doubt to soften the blow of the final transcripts.

    • emptywheel says:


      The day I wrote this post, I started talking openly about what a shit show the program was. For the remainder of the CIA testimony, this beefy gent started sitting over by where I was sitting.

      I think CIA believed they could declassify all the details of this shit show and not have anyone notice it was a shit show.

      Glad I bought a plane ticket.

  3. galljdaj says:

    Of Course! There is the oxymoron that the CIA CAN TELL THE TRUTH AT TRIAL, WHILE THERE BUSINESS ID lying.

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