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Wednesday, May 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Rice Details Risks of Compromised CIA Op

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) - The seriousness of a compromised CIA operation is enough to endanger the lives of assets, prompt national security briefings with the president, and bring Condoleezza Rice to the witness stand in the trial of a former CIA agent blamed for the compromise.

The federal trial of Jeffrey Alexander Sterling, ex-CIA agent accused of disclosing dangerous government secrets to journalist James Risen, picked up the pace Thursday in Alexandria as a parade of witnesses condemned the publication of information that allegedly threatened national security.

Information published in Risen's 2006 book, "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration," compromised a successful and ongoing operation that was one of the United States' only opportunities to thwart Iran's nuclear program, according to testimony given Thursday.

While Risen's book presented what he called Operation Merlin as a botched plan that may have actually helped Iran advance its nuclear weapons, CIA officials and Rice testified there was no reason to believe the operation was not succeeding when it was compromised by the book.

William Harlow, former director of public affairs for the CIA, fielded a 2003 phone call by Risen that alerted the CIA to the fact that the journalist had classified information regarding a mission to sell flawed nuclear plans to Iran. At the time, Risen planned to publish the story in the New York Times, and he gave details and used CIA code words that made it clear to Harlow that the publication of his impending article was something the CIA did not want.

Harlow said he told Risen he would try to find out if he could answer any of his questions about the alleged program, but in the meantime asked Risen to consider the national security implications if he published the story.

"I didn't think a respectable newspaper should be writing about it," Harlow said.

Risen's story prompted a meeting between the reporter, his Washington bureau chief Jill Abramson, then-CIA director George Tenet and Condoleezza Rice, who was serving as national security advisor to President George W. Bush.

Rice testified that she was stunned when she heard about Risen's story, especially because very few people knew about Operation Merlin, or Classified Program No. 1.

"This program was very closely held, it was one of the most closely held programs during my tenure as national security advisor," Rice said.

After consulting with President Bush, Rice said she decided the situation was serious enough for her to ask the New York Times not to publish the article. The disruption of the Iranian nuclear program was "one of the highest priorities of the Bush administration," Rice said, and she wanted the Times to understand how dangerous it would be to publish the article.

"My goal was to inform the New York Times some of what they had was not correct, and that they had been inappropriately provided this information," Rice said.

Shortly after the meeting, the New York Times decided not to publish the story.

The jury also heard new information about tensions between the asset, Merlin, and Sterling, his case officer. As Bob S., operations director for Classified Program No. 1, continued his testimony from Wednesday, it became clear that Merlin's relationship with Sterling was not a smooth one, partly due to Merlin's abrasive personality and partly because of his racist tendencies.

Merlin was most often difficult to deal with when he felt he hadn't been paid sufficiently, according to Bob S.'s testimony. The operative's anger over things out of Sterling's control still got directed at Sterling.

"Merlin blamed Sterling toward the end of their relationship for things that weren't his fault," Bob S. said. In response to being asked if Merlin disliked Sterling, Bob S. added, "At this point I don't think Sterling liked Merlin much, either."

Merlin also exhibited typical Russian attitudes when it came to race, which became a problem when he was assigned a black case officer. Although Bob S. said he felt Merlin made progress during the time he worked with Sterling, he still told the FBI in a 2003 interview that "the asset's dislike for Sterling was at least in part because Sterling was black."

As demonstrated by Sterling's discrimination lawsuit filed against the CIA, Merlin was not the only one he felt treated him differently due to his race. Sterling told Bob S. "a handful of times" in 1999 that he felt he had been treated unfairly by the CIA, the supervisor testified.

When District Judge Leonie Brinkema stepped in to ask Bob S. if he had done anything about Sterling's concerns, the witness said that wasn't his place.

"No, I was not in his chain of command," Bob S. told the judge. "I expressed to him that I often felt frustration with the management too, and he needed to do his job well and not worry about it."

The rest of the day included testimony from CIA witnesses Steve Y., Dennis M., Thomas H. and Mark L., all behind the gray screen. Thomas H. and Mark L. were two of Sterling's supervisors in New York, who both testified that Sterling did his job well. Steve Y. followed Sterling as Merlin's next case officer, and Dennis M. was Merlin's last case officer when "State of War" was published, and Merlin was subsequently deactivated.

The four former CIA agents drew a picture of a fairly loose security system in the CIA's New York office, where files were forbidden to be removed but no one was checking officers as they left the building. However, both supervisors testified that they never saw Sterling mishandle or remove documents.After Sept. 11, 2001, the building was destroyed and most of the Merlin case files were lost.

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