The U.S. Justice Department prosecution of former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) case officer Jeffrey Sterling for allegedly revealing details to New York Times (NYT) investigative journalist James Risen of one of its less-successful covert operations highlights much of what is seriously wrong with the contemporary mindset that prevails in foreign-policy circles and across the broader Beltway. Along with showcasing the inequities rooted in the U.S. justice system, the prosecution and subsequent trial brought into sharp relief once again the obsequious compliance of the corporate (or mainstream) media with the agenda of the national-security obsessives that populate the neo-conservative and liberal-interventionist firmament.
Now, with Sterling's sentencing pending later this month, it is timely to revisit the backstory of this case and consider its broader implications.
The Sterling case involved Risen's own efforts in 2006 to publish a story in the NYT detailing the CIA's convoluted and ultimately botched attempt during the Clinton administration to provide Iran with flawed nuclear-device schematics. The objective of this operation was to sabotage Iran's nuclear-weapons program, one that reportedly the CIA chaps weren't even sure existed at the time or for that matter whether the Iranians really had ambitions in that respect. To this day, this doubt remains.
Codenamed Operation Merlin, this ill-fated, misadventure in Spy v Spy subterfuge is one of the most bizarre, cockamamie plots ever seeded and harvested down on the Langley Farm. And in the annals of The Company's heroic exploits in the defence of freedom, democracy, truth, justice and the American Way, that's a 'call' for which there's serious competition. In fact, it's difficult to imagine master spy storyteller John Le Carre would've risked insulting his readers' intelligence devising such a scheme as a remotely plausible plot device.
Of course the Iranians' purported efforts to develop a nuclear-weapons program has been for some time - and remains - one of the defining and divisive strategic issues of our time, an observation evidenced by the Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu's recent dog 'n pony show presented for the U.S. Congress. If it wasn't for the fact that Russia itself has its own formidable nuclear-weapons arsenal, in geopolitical terms this issue might rival in significance the portentous standoff between the U.S. and its former Cold War nemesis over the Ukraine.
The Truth Might Set you Free
What's not "difficult to imagine" though is why the CIA folks would want to keep the specifics of this murky little black-op debacle from receiving wide-lens exposure. And although many CIA insiders would have us believe otherwise, it has little to do with national security.
Such is the byzantine nature of this story that an in-depth rendering herein is not possible, and in any event it has been well covered especially throughout the course of Sterling's trial. Suffice it to say that the outcome of this utterly reckless operation generated double-barreled 'blowback' -- the spooks' worst nightmare. And by pursuing at first Risen, then Sterling, in the manner in which they have done, the CIA for reasons best known to themselves seem hell bent on shooting themselves once again in the foot.
To begin with, in handing over even flawed blueprints for the nukes, the CIA inadvertently delivered information to the Iranians they almost certainly could have used to advance any weapons program. That is of course if and/or when they do decide to get serious about it because as indicated -- the Israeli PM's Congressional bluff 'n bluster aside -- few appear really certain what their intentions are. This apparently includes key figures in Israel's own intelligence services, who themselves appear to be singularly at odds with their own leader over the issue.
Second, according to Risen, after a Russian middleman (codenamed "Merlin") handed over the information to the Iranian embassy in Vienna on behalf of the CIA, an unnamed 'Company' case officer, in an email to an Iranian official in the course of the operation -- wait for this -- "accidentally" included the identities of every CIA agent in Iran. This official -- a double agent no less -- did what double agents do and turned this information over to Iranian security officials with the end result that several CIA folks will not be collecting their pensions.
Although there are a few insightful commentators in the mainstream and alternative media who were watching this trial closely and reporting on it with some measure of objectivity and veracity (albeit with variable degrees of concern regarding the implications), one such individual who did provide us with a cogent, useful analysis of the Sterling case is former CIA analyst turned activist Ray McGovern.
We'll return to McGovern's insights shortly, but first we need a bit more context and perspective.
When the NYT caved under pressure from the Bush administration and declined to publish the Merlin story (predictably citing the catch-all "national security" canard as their rationale), Risen off his own bat published a book called State of War wherein amongst other choice snippets of 'under the counter' intrigues of the Washington crypto-statists, he gave up the 'skinny' on the whole Merlin enchilada. It was only then the NYT belatedly decided to publish the story, a decision doubtless driven by its resolve to preserve its status as the first to print without fear or favour all the news that's fit to print and add further burnish its standing as the "paper of record".
For their part the CIA have always maintained it was Sterling who leaked this information to Risen, yet the evidence was always thin. Although for several years the CIA/DOJ had Risen himself on their 'prosecute with extreme prejudice' agenda for refusing to reveal his sources, they then backed off on the NYT journalist himself and in lieu placed Sterling in the legal crosshairs. This was despite compelling evidence Risen's source(s) could have been any number of people.