Operation Merlin was a CIA program that in 2000 provided Iran with flawed design information for a nuclear weapon component.
The CIA effort, which began in 1997, tried to use a former Russian nuclear engineer to misguide Tehran’s scientists pursuing a nuclear bomb. The engineer was to pass on flawed Russian plans for a nuclear triggering device.
The complicated spy operation ended in January 2006 after it was disclosed in James Risen’s book “State of War .”
Called “Operation Merlin” by Risen — after the engineer’s code name — the program was described as not only a failure but as “one of the most reckless operations in the modern history of the CIA.” Risen said it was one that may have helped put nuclear weapons in the hands of a charter member of what President George W. Bush called the “axis of evil.”
The cables show that sometime in 1996, the CIA’s Counter-Proliferation Division (CPD) came up with the idea of getting experts at a national laboratory to design a key part in a nuclear explosive device called a “fireset” or “firing set”, among other terms, that was so seriously flawed that it could not be made to work. The device would then be dangled in front of Iran, in the belief that the Iranians would snap it up and expend huge amounts of time, money and manpower to try to get it work.
In September 1996, the CPD started looking for a Russian émigré nuclear weapons specialist “asset” who knew about “fireset” technology. As a result, CPD recruited a former senior Russian engineer identified in redacted CIA documents and testimony at the trial only as “Merlin”.
During 1997 and 1998, while the false set of plans for the “fireset” was being created by experts at one of the national laboratories, “Merlin” was busy writing e-mails and letters to organisations and individuals in Iran who might have some interest in the subject. He was signing his own name and identifying himself as having worked at the Soviet Arzamas 16 nuclear weapons laboratory.
The Russian, who had defected to the US years earlier, still couldn’t believe the orders he had received from CIA headquarters. The CIA had given him the nuclear blueprints and then sent him to Vienna to sell them – or simply give them – to the Iranian representatives to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). With the Russian doing its bidding, the CIA appeared to be about to help Iran leapfrog one of the last remaining engineering hurdles blocking its path to a nuclear weapon. The dangerous irony was not lost on the Russian – the IAEA was an international organisation created to restrict the spread of nuclear technology.
On April 30, 2003, less than two months before CIA would roll out those nuclear blueprints in English (and at a time when US government officials were already working with Obeidi), Condoleezza Rice called New York Times‘ editors to the White House and persuaded them not to publish Risen’s story about Operation Merlin, in which (we now know) a Russian parts list rather curiously written in English were dealt to Iran back in 2000. Rice actually went further; she asked Times editor Jill Abramson to make Risen stop all reporting on this topic.
In 2004, it was possible to send high-speed, encrypted messages directly and instantaneously from CIA headquarters to agents in the field who were equipped with small, covert personal communications devices. So the officer at CIA headquarters assigned to handle communications with the agency’s spies in Iran probably didn’t think twice when she began her latest download. With a few simple commands, she sent a secret data flow to one of the Iranian agents in the CI A’s spy network. Just like she had done so many times before.
But this time, the ease and speed of the technology betrayed her. The CIA officer had made a disastrous mistake. She had sent information to one Iranian agent meant for an entire spy network; the data could be used to identify virtually every spy the CIA had inside Iran.
Mistake piled on mistake. As the CIA later learned, the Iranian who received the download was actually a double agent. The agent quickly turned the data over to Iranian security officials, and it enabled them to “roll up” the CIA’s agent network throughout Iran. CIA sources say that several of the Iranian agents were arrested and jailed, while the fates of some of the others is still unknown.
This espionage disaster, of course, was not reported in the press. It 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.
In the intervening eight years, stories about this onetime highly secret CIA operation have continued to describe it as a botched effort and one that might have actually helped Iran. Those descriptions, of course, were based on the assumption that all the facts in the book were true.
A former CIA official said there had been other attempts to set back Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons programme. “There were a number of occasions when Iran was found to be acquiring equipment for nuclear weapons and rather than stop it, they fiddled with the equipment, particularly computer equipment, before it got to Iran,” said the former official who wished to remain anonymou
The CIA believed Iran had a fire-set program when, by 2007, the CIA judged (in a National Intelligence Estimate released to the public, though that was not explained to the jury) Iran had no nuclear weapons program. Expert Walter C said he was “only vaguely” aware of this assessment, which is rather incredible given the heated debate that ensued when the NIE judgement was released.
In Risen’s affidavit to this court fighting his subpoena, he said he “made the decision to publish the information about Operation Merlin” because the case against Iraq “was based on flawed intelligence about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, including its supposed nuclear program.” He cited a 2005 report that “described American intelligence on Iran as inadequate to allow firm judgments about Iran’s weapons programs.” And he noted the “increasing speculation that the United States might be planning for a possible conflict with Iran, once again based on supposed intelligence concerning weapons of mass destruction.” Clearly, in Risen’s mind, this Iranian operation might tie into what he was learning and reporting about the Iraq debacle.
On paper, Merlin was supposed to stunt the development of Tehran’s nuclear programme by sending Iran’s weapons experts down the wrong technical path. The CIA believed that once the Iranians had the blueprints and studied them, they would believe the designs were usable and so would start to build an atom bomb based on the flawed designs. But Tehran would get a big surprise when its scientists tried to explode their new bomb. Instead of a mushroom cloud, the Iranian scientists would witness a disappointing fizzle. The Iranian nuclear programme would suffer a humiliating setback, and Tehran’s goal of becoming a nuclear power would have been delayed by several years. In the meantime, the CIA, by watching Iran’s reaction to the blueprints, would have gained a wealth of information about the status of Iran’s weapons programme, which has been shrouded in secrecy.
Why give Iran flawed plans for a key part of a nuclear bomb? Why imagine giving Iran the thing already built? So you can point out that Iran has them? Operation Merlin, thus, was nothing but an effort to plant nuke plans on Iran.