Trial Begins in Case of Ex-CIA Officer Allegedly Divulging Secrets to Journalist

News & Politics

The federal government claims it is prosecuting former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling for leaking information to a journalist about a risky covert operation in which the spy agency funneled flawed nuclear-bomb schematics to Iran. But the opening days of the trial suggest that the government may be using the case more to overcome its reputation for shoddy intelligence work.

In opening statements and testimony on Wednesday, prosecutors seemed more concerned about refuting journalist/author James Risen’s assessment of the CIA’s scheme as botched and dangerous than in connecting Risen to Sterling. Eliciting testimony from a nuclear engineer testifying behind a screen, prosecutors sought to portray the phony-blueprint gambit as meticulous and careful.

The dispute seems to center on whether the Russian operative code-named “Merlin,” who was assigned to deliver the documents to Iranian representatives, easily detected the flaws, as Risen wrote in his 2006 book, State of War, or simply noticed that some pages were missing. An internal team of CIA experts – when asked to examine the schematics – spotted about 25 percent of the errors, but there is a clash of opinions over whether that showed how easy it was to unmask the fraud or how difficult it was to spot the flaws.

None of that, however, relates to whether Sterling was or was not a source for Risen regarding the “Merlin” operation, proof that may prove difficult for U.S. prosecutors to establish because Risen, a New York Times’ national security reporter, has an array of sources within the intelligence community from whom to draw. Since the Justice Department has dropped attempts to force Risen to identify his sources, prosecutors may find it hard to substantiate that Sterling was one of the sources for the “Merlin” disclosures.

But the real subtext of the Sterling case is how the politicization of the CIA’s analytical division over the past several decades has contributed to multiple intelligence failures, especially efforts to “prove” that targeted regimes in the Middle East were amassing weapons of mass destruction.

The false Iraq-WMD case provided the key rationale for a war that has spread devastation not only across Iraq but has prompted terrorism and other violence throughout the Middle East and into Europe. “Operation Merlin” – hatched during the Clinton administration – was part of a similar effort to show that Iran was engaged in an active program for building a nuclear bomb and thus would have interest in the flawed schematics that the CIA was peddling.

Yet, in the Sterling case, federal prosecutors seem to want to have it both ways. They want to broaden the case to burnish the CIA’s reputation regarding its covert-op skills but then to narrow the case if defense attorneys try to show the jury the broader context in which the “Merlin” disclosures were made in 2006 – how President George W. Bush’s administration was trying to build a case for war with Iran over its nuclear program much as it did over Iraq’s non-existent WMDs in 2002-2003.

Judge Leonie Brinkema appears to be bending to the U.S. government’s wishes, allowing the prosecutors to polish up the “Merlin” gambit but then slip back to insisting on narrow relevance if defense attorneys try to broaden the frame to include the reasons why Risen considered it important to publish the story in the first place. Then, the case is just about the narrow question of whether Sterling gave classified information to Risen.

But the two issues – the bogus Iraq-WMD intelligence and the pressure to create another casus belli on Iran – are inextricably linked, as Risen himself explained in his affidavit submitted in connection with the Sterling case.

Risen wrote, “I believe I performed a vitally important public service by exposing the reckless and badly mismanaged nature of intelligence on Iran’s efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction, so that the nation would not go to war once again based on flawed intelligence, as it had in Iraq.”

Behind the Screen

In the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, there was a huge screen between those of us from the public and the proceedings, to permit a number of the witnesses to testify without their identities being revealed. Some witnesses even used partial or fake names.

The 12-foot-tall screen seemed like a metaphor for all the smoke and mirrors that we could hear but not see during the first “public” day of Sterling’s trial on ten felony charges. Another scheduled witness was Bush’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who famously helped sell the Iraq WMD claims by warning that she didn’t want “the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

Another phrase from that era – “not authentic” – kept going through my mind, the words that Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency, applied to forged documents supposedly proving that Iraq was hard at work on a nuclear-weapons program.

Those forged documents purportedly showed that Iraq was seeking “yellow-cake” (very low refined) uranium from the African country of Niger, a claim that President Bush referenced in his 2003 State of the Union Address as he sought to seal the deal on his Iraq invasion two months later.

No wonder the U.S. government wanted ElBaradei out as IAEA chief and a more pliable bureaucrat inserted to replace him. Then, the IAEA could be used to hype allegations about Iran’s alleged nuclear-weapons program to justify ratcheting up U.S. sanctions and even possibly a bombing campaign. That is where leaked cables from Pvt. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning to Wikileaks come in.

According to leaked U.S. embassy cables from Vienna, Austria, the site of IAEA’s headquarters, American diplomats in 2009 were cheering how they had replaced ElBaradei with Japanese diplomat Yukiya Amano who had agreed to push U.S. interests on Iran in ways that ElBaradei wouldn’t. After thanking the Americans for getting him his job, Amano put his hand out for more U.S. money to his office. [See’s “America’s Debt to Bradley Manning.”]

But ElBaradei’s phrase “not authentic” could have been applied much more broadly to what was passing for an intelligence product during those years. For me, “not authentic” brought a horrid flashback to those embarrassing days before the attack on Iraq, when my profession of intelligence analysis was corrupted by Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and eager-to-please CIA Director George Tenet.

Commenting on the 2008 findings of a five-year bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee investigation of the pre-Iraq War intelligence, then-Chairman Jay Rockefeller described much of it as “uncorroborated, contradicted, or even non-existent.”

UN weapons inspector Hans Blix put it this way: “I found it peculiar that those who wanted to take military action could – with 100 percent certainty – know that the weapons existed and turn out to have zero knowledge of where they were.” (I had a rare opportunity to raise that issue with Rumsfeld in May 2006 at a public session in Atlanta, Georgia.)

The Iran Group Think

It was within the context of another “group think” – the Inside-the-Beltway certainty that Iran was rushing to build a nuclear bomb – that the CIA’s eager-beaver practitioners of covert action adopted an overly clever way to sabotage the equally ephemeral nuclear weapons program of Iran. It was a scarcely believable story of over-imaginative sophomores with lots of money plotting to set back a “program” that, in all probability, did not exist.

The most definitive study of a post-Iraq “uncorroborated, contradicted, or even non-existent” nuclear weapons program, this time in Iran, is presented in Gareth Porter’s Manufactured Crisispublished a year ago (and viewed as untouchable by reviewers in the fawning corporate media).  Porter brings together the results of his many years of research into the issue, including numerous interviews with former insiders.

He shows that the origins of the Iran nuclear “crisis” were not in an Iranian urge to obtain nuclear weapons but, rather, in a sustained effort by the United States and its allies to deny Iran its right, as guaranteed in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to have any nuclear program at all.

The book highlights the impact that the U.S. alliance with Israel had on Washington’s belligerent policy toward Iran and sheds new light on the U.S. strategy of turning the IAEA into a tool of that policy, especially the mysterious intelligence from a laptop computer that supposedly “proved” Iranian duplicity but that has since been traced to a possible Israeli covert op to plant “not authentic” evidence.

Here’s how Hans Blix describes the disclosures in Porter’s book: “National intelligence presented or peddled is often problematic as evidence. In the case of Iraq, defective intelligence contributed to a war against weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. Could unreliable or cooked intelligence one day lead to an attack on Iranian intentions that may not exist?

“I feel grateful to Gareth Porter for his intrusive and critical examination of intelligence material passed to the IAEA. When security organizations do not shy away from assassinating nuclear scientists we can take it for certain that they do not for a moment hesitate to circulate false evidence.”

The allusion to the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, killings widely ascribed to Israeli intelligence services, is clear enough. And that is only a small part of the essential role played by Israel in building a case to “bomb-bomb-bomb” Iran. To his credit, Porter pulls no punches in exposing chapter and verse of this story.

So, the trial against Jeffrey Sterling seems to have multiple purposes beyond simply proving that Sterling leaked some secrets to James Risen. It is a chance for the CIA to contest the widespread impression that is some bumbling intelligence agency that comes up with harebrained schemes. It is also an opportunity to intimidate any other potential whistleblowers who would dare expose to the public more evidence that the CIA is just such a bumbling intelligence agency.

And, it would provide some protection for the next time the U.S. government needs some made-to-order “intelligence” to justify another conflict like the Iraq War. In that way, the prosecution of Jeffrey Sterling is a deterrent to future officials, who might be tempted to commit the unpardonable sin of putting loyalty to their conscience and the Constitution ahead of the non-disclosure contract they signed earlier as a condition of employment.

As Lord Acton, the Nineteenth Century English politician and historian, once said, “Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.”

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