How CIA Got NYT to Kill Iran-Nuke Story

When reporter James Risen called CIA to ask about a covert scheme to slip flawed nuclear blueprints to Iran, the Bush administration brought out some big guns to get the New York Times to rein in Risen, showing how cozy those relationships can be, writes Norman Solomon.

By Norman Solomon

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who also served as President George W. Bush’s national security adviser, made headlines when she testified Thursday at the leak trial of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, underscoring that powerful people in the Bush administration went to great lengths a dozen years ago to prevent disclosure of a classified operation.

But as The Associated Press noted, “While Rice’s testimony helped establish the importance of the classified program in question, her testimony did not implicate Sterling in any way as the leaker.”

Ex-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

Ex-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

Few pixels and little ink went to the witness just before Rice, former CIA spokesman William Harlow, whose testimony stumbled into indicating why he thought of Sterling early on in connection with the leak, which ultimately resulted in a ten-count indictment.

Harlow, who ran the CIA press office, testified that Sterling came to mind soon after New York Times reporter James Risen first called him, on April 3, 2003, about the highly secret Operation Merlin, a CIA program that provided faulty nuclear weapon design information to Iran.

Harlow testified that he tried to dissuade Risen without confirming the existence of Operation Merlin, first telling the reporter “that if there was such a program, I didn’t think a respectable newspaper should be writing about it.” The next day, when Risen called back, “I said that such a story would jeopardize national security.”

Not until cross-examination by a defense attorney did Harlow acknowledge something that he’d failed to mention when describing his initial conversation with Risen: In fact, Harlow had told Risen that only Al Jazeera would be willing to cover the story he was pursuing.

As a prosecution witness, Harlow volunteered some information that may come back to haunt the prosecutors. With alarm spreading among CIA officials, Harlow testified, someone at the agency mentioned to him that Sterling had worked on the Operation Merlin program. In his testimony, Harlow went on to say that Sterling’s name was familiar to him because Sterling, who is African American, had filed a race discrimination lawsuit against the CIA.

Left dangling in the air was the indication that Harlow thought of Sterling as a possible leaker because he’d gone through channels to claim that he had been a victim of racial bias at the CIA. Sterling’s complaint had received substantial coverage in several major news outlets. (The CIA eventually got the suit thrown out of court on the grounds of state secrets.)

According to Harlow’s testimony, everything he heard about Operation Merlin at the CIA was that it was going swimmingly. The only words otherwise came from Risen, who told him the Iranians were already aware of the flaws in the nuclear weapons design that the CIA had arranged to be passed along to them. Harlow testified that it was the first time he’d heard any assertion that Operation Merlin was not well run.

Along the way, on the witness stand Thursday afternoon, the veteran PR operative for the CIA let some paternalism slip: “I did think there was a way to dumb the story down so it would be appropriate to put in the paper,” Harlow said.

But his hopes to block the story or water it down enough to render it insignificant were clearly failing. Risen showed no sign of backing off. So the CIA called in big guns. Twenty-seven days after Risen’s first call on the subject to Harlow, national security adviser Rice hosted a meeting that included CIA Director George Tenet and other government officials  as well as Risen and Times Washington bureau chief Jill Abramson.

The pressure worked. Within 10 days, the Times told the National Security Council that it would not publish the story. “I was relieved when I learned the story was not running,” Rice testified on Thursday, “and I was grateful to the Times.”

Her relief lasted almost three years, until Risen included a chapter about Operation Merlin in his 2006 book State of War. But Rice has never had a reason to rescind her gratitude to the New York Times; the newspaper never published the story. Information about the dangerous CIA program only reached the public because Risen took the risk of putting it in a book.

Norman Solomon is the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and the author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. He is a co-founder of [This article originally was published by]


2 comments for “How CIA Got NYT to Kill Iran-Nuke Story

  1. January 19, 2015 at 23:37

    The United States has no shame when it comes to trying to entrap Iran. Iran is having none of it. Operation Merlin was based on the premise that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. There is no proof anywhere that such a weapons program exists. Thus Operation Merlin was based entirely on false premises, and the Iranians had a huge laugh at the inept material that was sent to them. Really, the U.S. government under Bush was run by ideologues and idiots, and this operation proved just how utterly wrong and pernicious they were. Operation Merlin should have been a scandal of the first order, except for the utterly complicit New York Times with reporters like Michael Gordon and David Sanger who were determined to see the Iranian government destroyed. The Times printed “Iranian nuclear weapons program” again and again in its editorials and reporting until they were caught out so many times they had to stop and resort to weasel words like “nuclear weapons development capacity.”

    There is no proof of an Iranian nuclear weapons program anywhere, or at any time. Period. Anyone who says otherwise or assumes otherwise is either a benighted fool or an outright liar.

  2. January 17, 2015 at 12:45

    “Du und ich: wir sind eins, ich kann dir nicht wehtun ohne mich zu verletzen.”

    (Mahatma Gandhi – Pazifist und Menschenrechtler, 1869-1948)

    Dieser Spruch ist so ungefähr der Gipfel östlicher Weisheit – charakterisiert durch das Unvermögen, zwischen einem Dorf und einem Staat zu unterscheiden. Tatsächlich war der Verfasser eher weniger “Pazifist und Menschenrechtler”, als ein Bastler – je nach Hobby – Ingenieur oder Architekt. Dabei hätte Gandhi nicht einmal so intelligent sein müssen, selbst auf die Lösung zu kommen; er hätte nur das richtige Buch zu lesen brauchen:

    Die Verwirklichung des Rechtes auf den vollen Arbeitsertrag

    Andererseits: Gandhi hätte dann zwar gewusst, wie der Weltfrieden und das Menschenrecht technisch zu verwirklichen sind, aber niemand hätte erfahren, dass es je einen “Pazifist und Menschenrechtler” Mahatma Gandhi gegeben hat. Denn was Freiheit und Gerechtigkeit ist, will das Volk bis heute gar nicht erst wissen. Alle Untertanen fürchten sich so sehr…

    …vor sich selbst, dass es stets ihre größte Sorge ist, Untertanen zu bleiben. Es bleibt einem nichts anderes übrig, als mit gutem Beispiel voran zu gehen,…

    …damit überhaupt etwas passiert,…

    …die gleichen Fehler nicht immer wieder gemacht werden,…

    …das Wesentliche begriffen wird…

    …und die Zukunft wieder offen ist:

    Mit freiwirtschaftlichem Gruß

    Stefan Wehmeier, 17.01.2015

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