News Release

Operation Merlin: Did CIA Seek to “Plant a Nuclear Gun” on Iran and Iraq?


New York Times editorial today titled “Overkill on a CIA Leak Case” is critical of aspects of the government’s prosecution of CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling who was sentenced to 42 months on Monday.

But the Times claims that what Sterling did was disclose “details about a covert operation involving a former Russian scientist and CIA informant who gave Iran intentionally faulty schematics in an attempt to forestall the country’s nuclear capabilities.”

However, some evidence exposed in the course of the Sterling trail indicates that the intention of the operation — known as Operation Merlin, after the former Russian scientist’s code name — was not to forestall Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities.

Rather, the analysis indicates that ultimately, the main purpose of the program may have been to give Iran — and Iraq — nuclear weapons information that could then be used as a pretext to attack those countries for having such information.

DAVID SWANSON, david at, @davidcnswanson
Swanson’s books include War is a Lie. He just wrote the piece “In Convicting Jeff Sterling, CIA Revealed More Than It Accused Him of Revealing,” which analyzes a secret cable that was made public in the course of the Sterling trial. Swanson writes: “During the course of Sterling’s trial, the CIA itself made public a bigger story than the one it pinned on Sterling. The CIA revealed, unintentionally no doubt, that just after the nuclear weapons plans had been dropped off for the Iranians, the CIA had proposed to the same asset that he next approach the Iraqi government for the same purpose.”

Swanson wrote back in January: “CIA on Trial in Virginia for Planting Nuke Evidence in Iran,” which states: “The stated motivation for Operation Merlin is patent nonsense that cannot be explained by any level of incompetence or bureaucratic dysfunction or group think.

“Here’s another explanation of both Operation Merlin and of the defensiveness of the prosecution and its witnesses … 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.”

RAY McGOVERN, rrmcgovern at
McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years and now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. McGovern was quoted Monday in U.S. News and World Report: “Jeffrey Sterling Sentenced to 42 Months for Talking to Reporter.” He just wrote the piece “Punishing Another Whistleblower,” about the Sterling case, which states: “The CIA was, of course, eager to help the Justice Department imprison Sterling as a message to other potential whistleblowers, not to divulge any secrets that might make the agency look bad. Never have I seen the agency release so much operational cable traffic to nail someone for supposedly revealing some operational secret.

“Many of the cables were redacted, but not redacted carefully enough to disguise what, in my opinion, was the real objective of the operation, which involved preparing nuclear weapons development blueprints to be given to Iran — and later possibly to Iraq.

“Those affable ‘case officers’ explained that the objective was to include serious design errors that would serve to impede progress on a workable nuclear weapon. For me, that never passed the smell test. It seemed more likely that the flawed blueprints were actually a ploy toward making a case that Iran and Iraq were secretly working on nuclear bombs.

“The thinking may have been: Why not create blueprints ‘showing’ how far along the Iranians (and possibly the Iraqis) were toward a nuclear weapon and then mount a daring clandestine collection operation to steal the blueprints back as proof of what the CIA and the White House wanted everyone to believe.

“Remember the ‘yellow-cake-uranium-from-Niger’ caper of a dozen years ago. That worked for a while until the International Atomic Energy Agency showed that the ‘evidence’ was a crude forgery. Yet the quest for learning how the caper began — and who was ultimately responsible — got lost in the byzantine strategies of George W. Bush’s White House to destroy a key whistleblower in that case, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson.”

Marcy Wheeler, who covered much of the Sterling trial for wrote the piece “The Sterling Trial: Merlin Meets Curveball” in January. She made a series of parallels between the disinformation on Iraqi WMDs being used as a pretext for invading that country and details of Operation Merlin gleaned from the Sterling trial, for example: “On June 25, 2003, on the evening before George Tenet had to testify to Congress about why the U.S. had found no WMD in Iraq, CIA hailed the claims of an Iraqi nuclear scientist, Mahdi Obeidi, who claimed to have stashed a blueprint and working parts from an Iraqi centrifuge in a hole in his backyard since 1991. The story was riddled with internal contradictions, which didn’t stop Obeidi from having the almost unparalleled luck among Iraqi WMD scientists of settling in the vicinity of CIA headquarters. One of the oddest parts of Obeidi’s story is that the blueprints, purportedly developed in Iraq by Iraqis from German plans — which CIA briefly posted on its website, then took down — were in English.

“On April 30, 2003, less than two months before CIA would roll out those nuclear blueprints in English (and at a time when U.S. government officials were already working with Obeidi), Condoleezza Rice called New York Times‘ editors to the White House and persuaded them not to publish Risen’s story about Operation Merlin, in which (we now know) a Russian parts list rather curiously written in English were dealt to Iran back in 2000. Rice actually went further; she asked Times editor Jill Abramson to make Risen stop all reporting on this topic.” is a project of the Institute for Public Accuracy.