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.
In an excerpt from State of War, printed yesterday in the Guardian newspaper, 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.
The operation, codenamed Merlin and approved by the Clinton administration, was intended to send Iranian scientists down a technological dead end, according to this account. They would spend years building a warhead which would fail to detonate. Instead, Risen writes, the operation may have helped Iran to "accelerate its weapons development" by extracting important information from the blueprints and ignoring the flaws.
Asked for comment yesterday, a US intelligence official said the account was "inaccurate", but gave no more details.
The CIA's public affairs director, Jennifer Millerwise Dyke, issued a written statement saying "every chapter of State of War contains serious inaccuracies ... The author's reliance on anonymous sources begs the reader to trust that these are knowledgeable people. As this book demonstrates, anonymous sources are often unreliable."
The statement added that operational details revealed in the book showed "an unfathomable and sad disregard for US national security."
A former CIA official said there had been other attempts to set back Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program.
"There were a number of occasions when Iran was found to be acquiring equipment for nuclear weapons and rather than stop it, they fiddled with the equipment, particularly computer equipment, before it got to Iran," said the former official who wished to remain anonymous.
Operation Merlin is not the only CIA gaffe recounted in State of War. In 2004, a CIA official sent an Iranian agent an encrypted electronic message, mistakenly including data that could potentially identify "virtually every spy the CIA had inside Iran." The Iranian was a double agent and handed over the information to Iranian intelligence.
"Several of the Iranian agents were arrested and jailed, while the fates of some of the others is still unknown," Risen writes.
An intelligence official said the account of this gaffe was also inaccurate. Former intelligence officials quoted on CNN claimed that a subsequent damage assessment found no evidence that any US agents in Iran had been unmasked or endangered.