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the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Channeling Cheney, the President Oversteps on National Security

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial

Then there was MERLIN. On paper, MERLIN was supposed to stunt the development of Tehran's nuclear program by sending Iran's weapons experts down the wrong technical path. The CIA believed that once the Iranians had the blueprints and studied them, they would believe the designs were usable and so would start to build an atom bomb based on the flawed designs. But Tehran would get a big surprise when its scientists tried to explode their new bomb.

Instead of a mushroom cloud, the Iranian scientists would witness a disappointing fizzle. The Iranian nuclear program would suffer a humiliating setback, and Tehran's goal of becoming a nuclear power would have been delayed by several years. In the meantime, the CIA, by watching Iran's reaction to the blueprints, would have gained a wealth of information about the status of Iran's weapons program, which has been shrouded in secrecy.

That's from Chapter 9 of "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration," published in January 2006 and written by New York Times reporter James Risen.

In January, Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA case agent who now lives in St. Charles County, was arraigned in St. Louis on charges filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va. He is charged with nine counts related to leaking classified information about Operation Merlin. Because Mr. Risen was the first journalist to report about the operation and is known to have had extensive contact with Mr. Sterling, it is obvious that Mr. Risen was the leakee.

But obvious isn't good enough for the Obama Justice Department. In May, prosecutors subpoenaed Mr. Risen to testify in the case. Under Justice Department procedures, the attorney general must sign off on any subpoena of a journalist. Policy says the journalist's testimony must be "essential to directly establishing innocence or guilt."

It's clearly not essential in this case, but the Obama administration's posture on national security cases would make former Vice President Dick Cheney proud. It has waffled on closing Guantanamo and trying its detainees. It flouted habeas corpus and humane treatment rules for alleged WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning. It defended the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program.


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Now it is going after Mr. Sterling for allegedly revealing details of Operation Merlin, which was carried out in 2000 under the Clinton administration. It might have been the CIA's silliest operation since the 1967 plot to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar.

Merlin (a name borrowed from a John Carré spy novel) backfired. Not only did the Iranians quickly discover the nuclear plans were flawed, but they also were able to reverse-engineer the plans to broaden their nuclear knowledge.

As with so many leak cases, the problem is not that the leaked information endangered security, but that it embarrassed the government. The CIA, as Seymour Hersh reported in an article in the June 6 edition of The New Yorker, still doesn't know how far along Iran's nuclear program is.

Mr. Risen's reporting on national security issues has made him a Pulitzer Prize winner. It has served the nation's interests by disclosing how intrusive U.S. intelligence agencies have become.

As a candidate for president, Barack Obama said, "I reject the view that the president may do whatever he deems necessary to protect national security."

What happened to that guy?

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