'CIA bungling hands Iran vital A-bomb clue'
Anton La Guardia and Alec Russell / London Telegraph | January 5 2006
Botched CIA operations may have handed Iran vital information on how to make nuclear weapons and betrayed the identities of America's spies in the country, according to a new book on US intelligence.
The latest account of American intelligence failures includes details of how the CIA allegedly tried to slip Teheran some Russian designs for an atomic bomb, which contained hidden flaws that would have made any device inoperable.
The Iranians, however, were tipped off by the very agent sent to give them the documents.
In a separate incident, the book claims a CIA officer mistakenly sent an Iranian agent - who turned out to be a double agent - information that was used to arrest virtually all of the agency's spies in Iran.
The claims are made in State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, by James Risen, the New York Times reporter who also revealed that the National Security Agency had tapped phone calls and e-mails of some US citizens without warrants.
The CIA says the book contains "serious inaccuracies", but has not elaborated.
The claims about Iran are startling because of the scale of bungling that Mr Risen claims has taken place.
He highlights one operation, known as Merlin, in February 2000, when the CIA allegedly sent a Soviet-era defector to Vienna where, posing an unemployed scientist selling nuclear secrets, he was supposed to contact the Iranians.
The Russian scientist, who had previously worked as an engineer on the Soviet nuclear weapons programme, was given Soviet documents for a key bomb component.
These had been provided by another Russian defector and then doctored by the CIA. Had they used the documents, "instead of a mushroom cloud the Iranian scientists would witness a disappointing fizzle", Mr Risen writes.
But the Russian scientist immediately spotted the flaw and told his CIA handlers: "This isn't right." When told to go ahead with his mission, he apparently feared the Iranians would find the errors and decided to include a letter that alerted them to the flaws in the designs.
Mr Risen describes Operation Merlin as "one of the most reckless operations in the modern history of the CIA, one that may have helped put nuclear weapons in the hands of a charter member of what President George W Bush has called the 'axis of evil' ".
Mr Risen also claims that in 2004 a CIA officer mistakenly sent one of its agents some information that was used by Iran to "roll up" the CIA espionage network in Iran.
"It left the CIA virtually blind in Iran, unable to provide any significant intelligence on one of the critical issues facing the United States - whether Teheran was about to go nuclear," Mr Risen writes.
Such tales of incompetence coming after the fiasco over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, will inevitably raise fresh doubts about the accuracy of Western intelligence reports that claim Iran is bent on building nuclear weapons.
Iran insists it seeks nuclear power only to generate electricity and has steadily dismantled its agreement with European countries to freeze activities linked to its uranium enrichment programme.
Western countries have so far failed to muster enough political support to report Iran to the United Nations Security Council for breaches of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
European governments have given detailed
intelligence briefings to Russian, Chinese, Indian and South African
officials in an attempt to persuade them to back American claims that
Iran has obtained designs for nuclear warheads, which could be fitted
to its range of missiles.
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