Articles

The Spectacular CIA Screwup That Probably Helped Iran Build A Nuke


Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For the past seven years, New York Times journalist James Risen has been embroiled in a legal battle with two presidential administrations over his refusal to reveal an inside government source.

It turns out he will not be called to testify at a leak trial scheduled to begin this week.

The story that almost sent the two-time Pulitzer winner to jail for not identifying confidential sources is one of the most spectacular CIA screwups in the history of the agency.

A full excerpt from his book "State of War" was published by The Guardian in 2006. Here's a rundown:

In February 2000, the CIA went forward with a covert operation called Operation Merlin to stunt the nuclear development of Iran by gifting them a flawed blueprint of an actual nuclear weapon.

It all started when the CIA persuaded a defected Russian nuclear engineer (who was granted citizenship and a $5,000-per-month income) to hand over technical designs for a TBA 480 high-voltage block or "firing set" for a Russian-designed nuclear weapon. The designs would allow the holder to build the mechanism that triggers a nuclear chain reaction, one of the most significant hurdles to successfully building a nuclear weapon.

The plan was for the Russian to pose as a greedy scientist trying to sell the designs to the highest bidder, which was to be Iran. The Russian was sent to Vienna to sell the designs to the Iranian representative of the International Atomic Energy Agency (that is, the UN body created to regulate nuclear technology).

The key to the plan was that the designs supposedly carried a serious design flaw the Iranians would be unable to recognize until they had already tried building the design.

When the Iranians tested the design, the bomb would fizzle, and Iran would have been set back years in its nuclear quest. At the same time, the US would be able to watch what the Iranians did with the blueprints and learn more about what they knew of nuclear technology.

It all sounded like a fine plan, except that it was wildly reckless and included huge missteps. The first was that, within minutes of looking at the plans, the Russian identified the design flaw. Granted he was more versed in nuclear designs than the Iranians to whom he was giving the designs, but CIA officers were shocked — they didn't expect him to be able to find it.

The CIA went forward with the plan anyway, handing the Russian a sealed envelope with the blueprints and instructing him to deliver them without opening the envelope. The Russian got cold feet and, of course, opened the envelope. Not wanting to be caught in the crossfire between the CIA and Iran, the Russian included a letter noting that the designs contained a flaw and that he could help them identify it.

The Russian dropped off the blueprints at the agreed location, without even meeting the officials from Iran, and fled back to the US. Within days, the Iranian official in Vienna headed home, most likely with the blueprint.

What makes the operation so reckless is that, according to former CIA officials to whom Risen spoke, the "Trojan horse" plan had been used before with America's enemies but never with a nuclear weapon. Handing over any weapons designs is a delicate operation, and any additional information could result in the country's accelerating its weapons program, not stunting it.

Between Iran's stable of knowledgeable nuclear scientists, and the fact the country had already obtained nuclear blueprints from a Pakistani scientist, giving them even flawed designs was extremely reckless. According to Risen, nuclear experts say Iran could compare the two blueprints to identify the flaw and then glean dangerous information from the blueprints anyway.

Operation Merlin failed on all accounts. Add in the fact that four years later, the CIA screwed up again, revealing its entire Iran spy network to a double agent, and the US was flying blind on Iran during a period in which the country was most likely making serious inroads on its nuclear program.

Check out Risen's more detailed account of this fascinating episode in the CIA's history here.

Also from Business Insider:

This article originally appeared at Business Insider Defense Copyright 2014. Follow BI Defense on Twitter.

4 critical components to the success of the first total penis transplant

The procedure was performed on an Afghanistan war veteran wounded by an IED

Doctors at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Maryland announced the first-ever successful total penis and scrotum transplant was performed on an Afghanistan veteran recently. The recipient was wounded in an IED attack that left him without sexual or urinary function but left his internal organs unharmed.

The procedure was performed on March 26th and the unidentified "sergeant" will have urinary function by the end of the week.

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

How R. Lee Ermey's Hollywood break is an inspiration to us all

While there have been many outstanding actors and celebrities who have raised their right hand, there has never been a veteran who could finger point his way to the top of Hollywood stardom quite like the late great Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey.

Keep reading... Show less
GEAR & TECH

Marines used a 3D printed F-35 replacement part for the first time

Marines with Combat Logistic Battalion 31, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, are now capable of "additive manufacturing," also known as 3-D printing.

This innovative process uses 3-D printing software to break down a digital model into layers that can be reproduced by the printer. The printer then builds the model from the ground up, layer by layer, creating a tangible object.

Keep reading... Show less
History

The 'indomitable determination' of John Paul Jones lives on in the Navy

April is a great month to remember the namesake of one of our Pearl Harbor guided-missile destroyers, USS John Paul Jones, named for a founding hero of our Navy and proudly known by the crew and their families and friends as "JPJ."

On April 19, 1775, the Battles of Lexington and Concord lit the match of Revolution against British tyranny. At the time Great Britain had more than 250 warships with nearly half having 50 or more guns – cannons. Our tiny naval force consisted of a few ragtag privateers and some humble sailing vessels. Even before our nation began, the founders commissioned 13 frigates and recruited warfighters, including immigrants like John Paul Jones.

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

This is how the 'missing man formation' honors fallen pilots

The first time I witnessed a 'missing man formation' was at the funeral of my grandfather, who flew the B-25 Mitchell during World War II. After his service in the Army Air Corps, he became a commercial pilot for TWA and then ventured into private flight. He died in an airplane crash at the age of 74 and my family gathered with his aviation community at Santa Paula Airport for his memorial.

At the ceremony, we looked to the sky as a group of planes from the Condor Squadron flew overhead. One of the planes banked away, leaving an empty space in the formation.

The symbolism was not lost on me.

Keep reading... Show less
Veterans

This Army vet started a supplement company dedicated to education

Before John Klipstein joined the Army, he smoked a pack a day and his PT test run time was roughly 23 minutes — which accounts for the time spent throwing up on the side of the track. The military turned that around. The newly-minted 13B found a love for fitness and pushing his body to the limit. After leaving the military, he developed a line of supplements to help others do the same — safely.

Keep reading... Show less

Taiwan is ready to push back against China's aggression

Tensions between the Peoples Republic of China and Taiwan have recently flared up as China held the largest show of naval force in its history in April 2018, and made new threats directed towards Taipei.

"We would like to reaffirm that we have strong determination, confidence and capability to destroy any type of 'Taiwan independence' scheme in order to safeguard the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Ma Xiaoguang, a spokeswoman for the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office, recently said.

Keep reading... Show less
GEAR & TECH

The president is getting a new Marine One after almost 60 years

Marine One is an icon of the presidency and for the most part, one helicopter has carried that load for almost 60 years: The VH-3, which first carried President Eisenhower in 1961. The current D model of the VH-3 entered service in 1978 and was later backed up with the introduction of the VH-60N in 1987. But, the fact remains that both of these helicopters are getting older by the day.

Keep reading... Show less