Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Did the CIA give the Iranians blueprints to build a bomb?

The Guardian - The CIA may have helped Iran to design a nuclear bomb through a botched attempt to channel flawed blueprints to Tehran's weapon designers, according to a new book on the US "war on terror". In an excerpt from State of War, printed today in G2, the author and New York Times intelligence correspondent, James Risen, writes that the abortive operation misfired when a Russian defector on the CIA payroll, chosen to deliver the deliberately flawed nuclear warhead blueprints to Iranian officials in February 2000, tipped them off about the defects:

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.

The [CIA] case officer handed the Russian a sealed envelope with the nuclear blueprints inside. He was told not to open the envelope under any circumstances. He was to follow the CIA's instructions to find the Iranians and give them the envelope with the documents inside. Keep it simple, and get out of Vienna safe and alive, the Russian was told. But the defector had his own ideas about how he might play that game.

In Vienna, however, the Russian 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 the blueprints - so he decided to mention that fact to the Iranians in his letter. They would certainly find flaws for themselves, and if he didn't tell them first, they would never want to deal with him again. The Russian was thus warning the Iranians as carefully as he could that there was a flaw somewhere in the nuclear blueprints, and he could help them find it. At the same time, he was still going through with the CIA's operation in the only way he thought would work.

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