Since Tuesday and continuing for the coming three weeks, an amazing trial is happening in U.S. District Court at 401 Courthouse Square in Alexandria, Va. The trial is open to the public, and among the upcoming witnesses is Condoleezza Rice, but — unlike the Chelsea Manning trial — most of the seats at this somewhat similar event are empty.
The media is mostly MIA, and during lunch break the two tables at the cafe across the street are occupied, one by the defendant and his lawyers, the other by a small group of activists, including former CIA officer Ray McGovern, blogger Marcy Wheeler (follow her report of every detail at ExposeFacts.org), and Norman Solomon who has organized a petition at DropTheCharges.org — the name of which speaks for itself.
Why Gareth Porter (and others who are focused on the decades-long Western effort to frame Iran with having or pursuing nuclear weapons) are not here, I do not know. Why the public is not here, I do not know. Except that Jeffrey Sterling has not been even so much as demonized in the major media.
Some people have heard of James Risen, a New York Times reporter who refused to name his source for a story. Damn right. Good for him. But what was the story and whom did the government want named as a source? Ah. Those questions might seem obvious, but the reporting on James Risen has avoided them like the plague for years and years now. And the independent media is not always as good at creating a story as it is at improving on stories in the corporate press.
Jeffrey Sterling went to Congress with his story. He was a CIA case officer. He is accused of having taken his story to James Risen. The prosecution is quite clearly establishing, against its own interest, during the course of this trial already, that numerous people were in on the story and could have taken it to Risen. If Sterling is to be proved guilty of the non-crime of blowing the whistle on a crime, the prosecution has yet to hint at how that will be done.
But what is the story? What is the crime that Sterling exposed for that tiny sliver of the population that’s interested enough to have listened? (Sure, Risen’s book was a “best seller” but that’s a low hurdle; not a single prospective juror in Alexandria had read the book; even a witness involved in the case testified Wednesday that he’d only read the one relevant chapter.)
The Nonsense of Operation Merlin’s Stated Motivation
The story is this. The CIA drew up plans for a key part of a nuclear bomb (what a CIA officer on Wednesday described in his testimony as “the crown jewels” of a nuclear weapons program), inserted flaws in the plans, and then had a Russian give those flawed plans to Iran.
During the trial on Wednesday morning, the prosecution’s witnesses made clear both that aiding Iran in developing a part of a bomb would be illegal under U.S. export control laws, and that they were aware at the time that there was the possibility of what they were doing constituting just such aid.
So, why do it?
And why is this trial going on for hours and hours without the slightest relevance to prosecuting Jeffrey Sterling, sounding for all intents and purposes like a defense of the CIA?
Well, the stated reason for this operation, known as Operation Merlin, was to slow down Iran’s nuclear weapons program by causing Iranian scientists to spend time and resources on a doomed plan that would never work.
A very young, very very white jury is hearing the case made thusly. The U.S. government lacked evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program and not long after came out with an assessment that such a program did not exist and had not existed for some time. Nonetheless, years of effort and millions of dollars went into trying to slow the program down by a period of months. The CIA created a design, drawing, and parts list for a Russian nuclear fire set (the nuclear bomb component). They intentionally made it incomplete because supposedly no actual Russian scientist would credibly have complete knowledge of it. Then they told their designated Russian to tell the Iranians that it was incomplete because he wanted money, after which he would gladly produce what he couldn’t credibly have.
According to one cable read aloud in court, the CIA would have liked to give Iran the actual device already constructed for them, but didn’t because it wouldn’t have been credible for their Russian to have it.
Before getting their Russian to spend years (anything shorter would not have been credible, they say) getting in touch with the Iranians, the U.S. scientists spent 9 months building the device from the plans and then proceeded to test it in a lab. Then they introduced multiple “flaws” into the plans and tested each flaw. Then they gave their flawed plans to their own team of scientists who weren’t in on their cockamamie scheme. In five months, those scientists spotted and fixed enough of the flaws to build a fire set and get it to work in a lab. This was considered a success, we’re told, because the Iranians would take a lot longer than five months, and because getting something to work outside of a lab is much harder.
To their credit, the defense lawyers’ cross-examining of witnesses suggests that they find much of this ludicrous. “Have you ever seen a Russian parts list in English?” was one question asked on Wednesday. Another question: “You say you had people experienced in detecting flaws in fire set plans. Is that because there is a market in such things?” The judge sustained an objection to that last question.
The stated motivation for Operation Merlin is patent nonsense that cannot be explained by any level of incompetence or bureaucratic dysfunction or groupthink.
The Dark Magic of Operation Merlin
Here’s another explanation of both Operation Merlin and of the defensiveness of the prosecution and its witnesses (in particular “Bob S.”) at the prosecution of Jeffrey Sterling which is thus far failing to prosecute Jeffrey Sterling. This was an effort to plant nuke plans on Iran, part of the pattern described in Gareth Porter’s latest book.
Marcy Wheeler reminds me of related efforts to plant English-language nuke plans around the same period of time or not long after. There was the laptop of death, later reprised for another war marketing effort. There were nuke plans and parts buried in a backyard as well.
Why give Iran flawed plans for a key part of a nuclear weapon? Why fantasize about giving Iran the thing already built (which wouldn’t delay Iran’s non-existent program much). Because then you can point out that Iran has them. And you won’t even be lying, as with forged documents claiming Iran is buying uranium or hired subcontractors pretending aluminum tubes are for nuclear weapons. With Operation Merlin you can work some real dark magic: You can tell the truth about Iran having what you so desperately want Iran to appear to have.
Why go to such efforts? Why do Operation Merlin, whatever the motivation(s) may have been?
But when “Bob S.” is asked who authorized this madness he doesn’t say. He clearly suggests that it initiated within the CIA, but avoids specifics. When Jeffrey Sterling told Congress, Congress didn’t tell the public. And when somebody told James Risen, the U.S. government — so outraged over assaults on freedom of the press in Paris — started hauling people into court.
And the public doesn’t even show up to watch the trial.
Attend this trial, people. Report on it. Report the truth. You’ll have no competition. The big media are not in the room.Φ
David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of WorldBeyondWar.org and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org. Swanson’s books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at DavidSwanson.org and WarIsACrime.org. He hosts Talk Nation Radio.