Wednesday, January 11, 2006

All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace

In this case the CIA. Salon has a book review of James Risen's new book "State of War" (the review is by Farhad Manjoo). The book covers the functioning of the CIA over the last several years, and is largely a story of how a weak Tenet let himself be bushed around by the Neo Conservatives (like Donald Rumsfeld).

The most troubling part of the review comes near the end, covering our surveillance of Iran. This is a long citation, I admit, but the situation warrants it.
For all the shoddiness of the CIA's work on Iraq, Risen raises the specter that its work on Iran is even flimsier, and might lead, eventually, to even scarier ends than we've met in Iraq. In a final chapter that is as darkly portentous as it is frustratingly vague, Risen writes of a recent intelligence snafu that compromised all American intelligence operations in Iran. The spy business doesn't get any more comic than this: The snafu was the result of a careless e-mail mistake. In June 2004, a CIA officer accidentally sent information that could be used to identify every American spy in Iran to an agent who, unbeknown to the CIA, was working for the Iranian government. The mistake "left the CIA virtually blind in Iran, unable to provide any significant intelligence on one of the most critical issues facing the United States -- whether Tehran was about to go nuclear."

But wait, it gets better. It turns out, Risen says, that the U.S. has pretty good reason to be worried about Iran's nuclear goals, as we may have been a key source for the development of its weapons program. In an operation code-named Merlin that was launched under the Clinton administration and continued by Bush, the CIA cooked up a high-risk plan "to stunt the development of Tehran's nuclear program by sending Iran's weapons experts down the wrong technical path." To do this, the CIA obtained extremely sensitive Russian blueprints for a component known as a TBA-480 high-voltage block, which Risen writes is needed in a nuclear bomb to "create a perfect implosion that could trigger a nuclear chain reaction inside a small spherical core." The design, Risen adds, "was one of the greatest engineering secrets in the world, providing the solution to one of a handful of problems that separated nuclear powers ... from the rogue countries like Iran that were desperate to join the nuclear club but had so far fallen short."

The CIA's plan was to slightly tweak the blueprints in order to introduce a technical flaw that would be imperceptible to Iranian scientists, and then to have a Russian scientist drop off the documents at an Iranian diplomatic office in Vienna, Austria. Even in theory, the plan sounds pie in the sky; in reality, the whole thing fell apart. The Russian scientist whom the CIA chose, a defector who lived in the United States, immediately spotted the engineering flaw that the Americans had introduced into the designs, and before he dropped off the plans in Vienna, he added a little note that tipped off the Iranians to the problem.

Were it not in a book by a Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter, the notion that the United States may have so recklessly transferred nuclear secrets to the Iranians sounds almost insane, like the rantings of a conspiracy theorist. As it is, actually, Risen's story is hard to believe -- not because I don't want to believe him or because he's not careful, but because it raises so many questions that he doesn't, and possibly can't, answer.
Anyway you should go read the rest of the article. It is distressingly clear that the Neo-Conservatives have compromised our ability to defend ourselves.

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