Friday, January 06, 2006
With plans like these, it makes you wonder if they came up with it over some beers at a happy hour. It reminds me of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when one of the Knights makes a Trojan Bunny, which is taken into the castle without anyone inside. Since they forgot that part of the plan, nobody could leap out of the bunny in a surprise attack.|
The story dates back to the Clinton administration and February 2000, when one frightened Russian scientist walked Vienna's winter streets. The Russian had good reason to be afraid. He was walking around Vienna with blueprints for a nuclear bomb.
To be precise, he was carrying technical designs for a TBA 480 high-voltage block, otherwise known as a "firing set", for a Russian-designed nuclear weapon. He held in his hands the knowledge needed to create a perfect implosion that could trigger a nuclear chain reaction inside a small spherical core. It was one of the greatest engineering secrets in the world, providing the solution to one of a handful of problems that separated nuclear powers such as the United States and Russia from rogue countries such as Iran that were desperate to join the nuclear club but had so far fallen short.
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.
The Russian was a nuclear engineer in the pay of the CIA, which had arranged for him to become an American citizen and funded him to the tune of $5,000 a month. It seemed like easy money, with few strings attached.
Until now. The CIA was placing him on the front line of a plan that seemed to be completely at odds with the interests of the US, and it had taken a lot of persuading by his CIA case officer to convince him to go through with what appeared to be a rogue operation.
The case officer worked hard to convince him - even though he had doubts about the plan as well. As he was sweet-talking the Russian into flying to Vienna, the case officer wondered whether he was involved in an illegal covert action. Should he expect to be hauled before a congressional committee and grilled because he was the officer who helped give nuclear blueprints to Iran? The code name for this operation was Merlin; to the officer, that seemed like a wry tip-off that nothing about this programme was what it appeared to be. He did his best to hide his concerns from his Russian agent.
The Russian's assignment from the CIA was to pose as an unemployed and greedy scientist who was willing to sell his soul - and the secrets of the atomic bomb - to the highest bidder. By hook or by crook, the CIA told him, he was to get the nuclear blueprints to the Iranians. They would quickly recognise their value and rush them back to their superiors in Tehran.
The plan had been laid out for the defector during a CIA-financed trip to San Francisco, where he had meetings with CIA officers and nuclear experts mixed in with leisurely wine-tasting trips to Sonoma County. In a luxurious San Francisco hotel room, a senior CIA official involved in the operation talked the Russian through the details of the plan. He brought in experts from one of the national laboratories to go over the blueprints that he was supposed to give the Iranians.
The senior CIA officer could see that the Russian was nervous, and so he tried to downplay the significance of what they were asking him to do. He said the CIA was mounting the operation simply to find out where the Iranians were with their nuclear programme. This was just an intelligence-gathering effort, the CIA officer said, not an illegal attempt to give Iran the bomb. He suggested that the Iranians already had the technology he was going to hand over to them. It was all a game. Nothing too serious.
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 Russian studied the blueprints the CIA had given him. Within minutes of being handed the designs, he had identified a flaw. "This isn't right," he told the CIA officers gathered around the hotel room. "There is something wrong." His comments prompted stony looks, but no straight answers from the CIA men. No one in the meeting seemed surprised by the Russian's assertion that the blueprints didn't look quite right, but no one wanted to enlighten him further on the matter, either.
In fact, the CIA case officer who was the Russian's personal handler had been stunned by his statement. During a break, he took the senior CIA officer aside. "He wasn't supposed to know that," the CIA case officer told his superior. "He wasn't supposed to find a flaw."
"Don't worry," the senior CIA officer calmly replied. "It doesn't matter."