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Reprinted from Consortium News
President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney receive an Oval Office briefing from CIA Director George Tenet. Also present is Chief of Staff Andy Card (on right).
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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.
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 10 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.