ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — In early 2000, the U.S. government pinned its hopes for disrupting Iran's nuclear ambitions on a Russian emigre working for the CIA who was tooling around Vienna looking to deliver bogus nuclear blueprints to the Iranians.
Unfortunately the asset, nicknamed "Merlin," was having a hard time finding the Iranians' address.
Jurors on Friday at the leak trial of ex-CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling heard Merlin testify for nearly three hours about his life as a CIA asset and his key role in the classified operation to give deliberately flawed nuclear blueprints to Iran.
Prosecutors say Sterling, 47, of O'Fallon, Missouri, who was Merlin's handler in 2000, illegally leaked details of the operation to New York Times journalist James Risen to get back at the agency for perceived mistreatment. Sterling denies that he leaked anything to Risen. His lawyers have suggested that others, including Merlin, appear to be more likely sources for Risen's work. Merlin testified Friday that he did not leak anything to Risen.
Former national security adviser Condoleezza Rice testified on Thursday that the Merlin operation "was one of the only levers we had to try to disrupt Iran's nuclear program."
Merlin, a Russian nuclear engineer who was paid $66,000 by the CIA in 2000, also told jurors Friday about his adventures in Vienna in February of that year, where his role was to deliver a set of blueprints for a nuclear weapons part called a "firing set" to Iran's mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Merlin's CIA handlers had given him very explicit instructions, but Merlin said he deviated from those instructions when he thought it appropriate.
Merlin was supposed to deliver, free of charge, an incomplete set of blueprints for a firing set to the Iranians, with instructions that they could get the rest of the blueprints if they contacted him and paid him.
The blueprints were not only incomplete, but had been doctored to insert dozens of hidden errors that were supposed to leave the Iranians chasing their own tail for years trying to build a firing set that would never work.
Merlin was supposed to give the Iranians an American address to contact him for the rest of the blueprints. But Merlin said he thought an American address would be suspicious, and he was also concerned about leaving an address that could be traced back to him, so he instead left an email address as a contact.
He also testified about the difficulty of finding the Iranian mission in Vienna. He found it eventually, but no one would answer the door, so he stuffed the envelope with the blueprints in a mailbox and covered it up with a newspaper.
The Iranians never got back to him, but Merlin said he and CIA brass considered the mission a success.
On cross-examination, defense lawyers suggested that many of the details in Risen's book seemed more likely to have come from Merlin himself, as opposed to Sterling. Merlin said that was not the case; that he was, in fact, concerned for his family's safety after the book was released. Merlin also described parts of Risen's book as completely untrue, including passages that falsely described him as a Russian defector and passages that said he had second thoughts about carrying out the mission.