Politics & Policy

The Great Counterintelligence Fiasco

Why should anyone believe anything the CIA has to say about Iran?

Like everyone else in Washington, I’ve been reading excerpts from James Risen’s new book, the one that “exposes” the “crimes” of the Bush administration with regard to the war on terrorism. The most recent excerpt deals with the CIA’s activities vis-à-vis Iran, and Risen says some very shocking things, things which a serious city would find far more troublesome than the legalities about NSA’s intercepts of conversations involving terrorists. Since I’m just an amateur at these arcane subjects, I thought it best to get some real expertise, and so I dusted off the old Ouija board for the first time this year, and got it up and running. After about 20 minutes of searching, I finally got my old friend James Jesus Angleton, once upon a time the head of counterintelligence at Langley.

JJA: Happy New Year! Hope everyone’s doing well.

ML: Thanks, dittos. We’re okay down here, hoping for a terrific 2006. And you?

JJA: Kind of you to ask. I’m doing fine, it’s just that the puritans who run this place won’t let me smoke. They say it’s totally contrary to the milieu, and that if I want to smoke I can put in for a transfer to the other place…

ML: Probably not what you’re looking for?

JJA: Not at all. But enough about me, what’s on your mind?

ML: Have you read that excerpt from the Risen book, State of War, that was in Thursday’s Guardian?

JJA: Indeed I have. I was hoping that’s why you called. It’s simply amazing. Unbelievable.

ML: You mean the buffoonery by the CIA operations directorate that Risen talks about?

JJA: Well, obviously. But the really amazing part is that Risen doesn’t even notice the truly horrible aspects of his own story. He doesn’t have the wit or the energy to think half a step beyond the tale he’s been told.

ML: Okay, let’s take them in order. The first one dates back to Clinton. It’s about an operation called “Merlin,” and consisted of feeding doctored information about the design of nuclear weapons to the mullahs via a Soviet scientist who had defected “years earlier” to the United States. The concept was to get the Iranians to use the snafued version in their bombs so that they would fizzle instead of explode.

JJA: Right. We’ve been doing such things for years, and for good reason. If you know that your enemies are trying to steal your blueprints, or buy good weapons on the clandestine market, you’re well-advised to try to get them to steal or buy things that won’t work, instead of running around trying to plug all the cracks in the dyke. Nothing wrong with the concept.

ML: Except that we never did it with nuclear stuff before, did we? And Risen’s got expert testimony that the Iranians could easily have sorted out the good parts of the blueprints from the disinformation, so that in the end we would have actually helped them.

JJA: Yes, I saw that. You can always get somebody to say that any given idea is idiotic. But you’d need to know a lot more than Risen knows to be able to judge it, in this specific case. And that points us to the really interesting question, the one that Risen doesn’t bother to ask, let alone answer.

ML: I’m following you. If we knew enough–in 2000, mind you–to be able to design an effective disinformation program, then…

JJA: Then (he started shouting in that gravelly voice of his) THEY KNEW THE IRANIANS HAD A NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROGRAM SIX YEARS AGO.

ML: But they were forever testifying, in those years, that they really didn’t know.

JJA: The damn fools.

ML: Well, maybe they had a political problem. They certainly knew that Clinton wasn’t going to do anything about it, so why should they make the case? There’s a long history of this, including the CIA’s failure to sufficiently warn about al Qaeda, etc. etc…

JJA: Nononono! They did make the case–that’s Risen’s real scoop, and he doesn’t even know it. They had to make the case in order to justify the operation. You couldn’t have “Merlin” unless you knew there was an Iranian nuclear-weapons program. Remember that Risen makes a big deal about the fact that the Russian defector was carrying “a technical design for…a ‘firing set’ for a Russian-designed nuclear weapon.”

ML: You’re right. Good heavens!

JJA: Damn right. And that takes us to the true idiocy of “Merlin.” It’s not, as Risen has it, that we might have inadvertently helped the mullahs design a better weapon; they had all the help they needed on that one. That was a component of a Soviet bomb. The true idiocy was the apparent failure to realize that the Iranians could find out all about the defector, because their nuclear program was being helped by the Russians, who had to know all about this guy. And the Russians also knew all about that “firing set,” because they’d designed it in the first place. So the buffoons in the DO should have known–I mean, five minutes’ deep concentration would have gotten them there–that this particular deception could not possibly work.

ML: They didn’t think about the counterintelligence angle.

JJA: To put it mildly. Nor did any of the policymakers; they should have seen through it right away. But they didn’t, because counterintelligence is a lost art out at Langley, as Risen’s other story proves quite effectively.

ML: That’s the one about the lady at CIA who mistakenly sent information to the “wrong spy”–an agent inside Iran.

JJA: Ha! Wrong spy indeed! Risen says “she had sent information to one Iranian agent that exposed an entire spy network; the data could be used to identify virtually every spy the CIA had inside Iran.”

ML: All three of them…

JJA: Chortle.

ML: And Risen continues, “the Iranian who received the download was a double agent. The agent quickly turned the data over to Iranian security officials, and it enabled them to ‘roll up’ the CIA’s network throughout Iran…”

JJA: There you go. We had fallen for a classic deception, just as we did during the Cold War with Cubans and East Germans (remember that it turned out that most all the presumed “spies” in those countries were double agents). So much for “spycraft.” It’s a replay of an earlier catastrophe, in the Nineties, when scores of Iranians were rounded up and killed because the CIA had made a hash of the operation and exposed their identities. All that should raise some serious questions in the minds of the policymakers, don’t you think?

ML: Yeah, like: if we are constantly tricked by the mullahs, why should anyone believe anything the CIA has to say about Iran?

JJA: Pfui. Risen says that “in the spring of 2005, in the wake of the CIA’s Iranian disaster, Porter Goss…told President Bush…that the CIA really didn’t know how close Iran was to becoming a nuclear power.”

ML: But that doesn’t parse! They had known enough, years before, to launch “Merlin.”

JJA: Or they didn’t, in which case there’s no excuse at all for “Merlin.” In fact, it looks like the real disinformation program was running the other way. If I were in charge of counterintelligence (his voice got a bit dreamy here, as the static was starting up on the Ouija board), I’d run some operations to see if the so-called “agents” in Iran were ours, or the mullahs’. And (the board was now sparking and it was hard to make out his voice) find out…if…some bastard at the DO…working….the other side.

At least that’s what it sounded like. Anyway, you know how he thought: Anything could be its own opposite. He loved to tell the story of the “Trust,” the Soviet disinformation operation that tricked the West into supporting a bogus army of presumed anti-Communists who were working for Soviet intelligence all along. We thought we had penetrated the Soviet Union, but it was the other way around; they had penetrated our intelligence services. They found out what we were up to, and they deceived us into striking at their strongest link. So it’s inevitable that he would wonder if Risen’s stories were much more important than Risen realized. Maybe they show that the Iranians have done something similar. They’re certainly up to it.

A few days ago President Ahmadinejad said “we must prepare ourselves to rule the world.” And he cheerfully commented on Sharon’s stroke, “The Butcher of Sabra and Shatila has joined his ancestors and others will soon follow suit.”

A regime with such ambitions is capable of anything.

Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. He is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute

Michael LedeenMichael Ledeen is an American historian, philosopher, foreign-policy analyst, and writer. He is a former consultant to the National Security Council, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense. ...


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