Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Give Tenet Another Medal

Salon has a profile of James Risen's new book. He's the guy who broke the whole Big Brother NSA spying story. It's got good and bad and all the rest, but the part that freaks me out:

It turns out, Risen says, that the U.S. has pretty good reason to be worried about Iran's nuclear goals, as we may have been a key source for the development of its weapons program. In an operation code-named Merlin that was launched under the Clinton administration and continued by Bush, the CIA cooked up a high-risk plan "to stunt the development of Tehran's nuclear program by sending Iran's weapons experts down the wrong technical path." To do this, the CIA obtained extremely sensitive Russian blueprints for a component known as a TBA-480 high-voltage block, which Risen writes is needed in a nuclear bomb to "create a perfect implosion that could trigger a nuclear chain reaction inside a small spherical core." The design, Risen adds, "was one of the greatest engineering secrets in the world, providing the solution to one of a handful of problems that separated nuclear powers ... from the rogue countries like Iran that were desperate to join the nuclear club but had so far fallen short."

The CIA's plan was to slightly tweak the blueprints in order to introduce a technical flaw that would be imperceptible to Iranian scientists, and then to have a Russian scientist drop off the documents at an Iranian diplomatic office in Vienna, Austria. Even in theory, the plan sounds pie in the sky; in reality, the whole thing fell apart. The Russian scientist whom the CIA chose, a defector who lived in the United States, immediately spotted the engineering flaw that the Americans had introduced into the designs, and before he dropped off the plans in Vienna, he added a little note that tipped off the Iranians to the problem.
And is there any evidence to suggest that the CIA isn't precisely that incompetent?

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