What You Should Know about “Operation Merlin,” Jeffrey Sterling, the CIA, the Obama Administration and Whistleblowers

200px-CIA.svgBy Elaine Magliaro

Does the name Jeffrey Sterling sound familiar? It should. Sterling is the former CIA officer who was convicted in late January of violating the Espionage Act. Sterling, 47,  was accused of giving  journalist James Risen “classified information about U.S. plans to spoil Iran’s nuclear program…” Sterling is supposedly the source “that helped Risen drag a bizarre CIA project called Operation Merlin out of hiding behind the label ‘classified.'”

Sterling was reportedly fired from the CIA in 2002–and indicted for espionage in 2011. Sterling could possibly face dozens of years in prison. He is due to be sentenced in April.

Matt Apuzzo (New York Times) said that Sterling’s conviction was “a significant victory for the Obama administration, which has conducted an unprecedented crackdown on officials who speak to journalists about security matters without the administration’s approval.” Risen refused to identify his sources.

Jeffrey Sterling

Jeffrey Sterling

Matt Apuzzo:

“The case revolved around a C.I.A. operation in which a former Russian scientist provided Iran with intentionally flawed nuclear component schematics. Mr. Risen revealed the operation in his 2006 book “State of War,” describing it as a mismanaged, potentially reckless mission that may have inadvertently aided the Iranian nuclear program.”

After Sterling’s conviction, his lawyer, Barry Pollack, said, “It is a sad day for Mr. Sterling and his wife. We will be filing motions to set aside the verdict and file an appeal.”

Several days before Sterling was convicted, Norman Solomon wrote an interesting article about the former CIA officer for Huffington Post titled Why the CIA Is So Eager to Demolish Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling. (Note: Solomon is the author of the book War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.)

Solomon said that the CIA’s reputation “needs a lift” after rolling “downhill at an accelerating pace in the dozen years since telling President George W. Bush what he wanted the nation to hear about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.” Solomon added, “That huge bloody blot on the agency’s record has not healed since then, inflamed by such matters as drone strikes, rendition of prisoners to torture-happy regimes and resolute protection of its own torturers.”


CIA sensibilities about absolution and prosecution are reflected in the fact that a former head of the CIA’s clandestine service, Jose Rodriguez Jr., suffered no penalty for destroying numerous videotapes of torture interrogations by the agency — which knew from the start that the torture was illegal.

But in the courtroom, day after day, with patriotic piety, CIA witnesses — most of them screened from public view to keep their identities secret — have testified to their reverence for legality.

In the process, the CIA is airing soiled threads of its dirty laundry as never before in open court. The agency seems virtually obsessed with trying to refute the negative portrayal of Operation Merlin — the CIA’s effort 15 years ago to provide a flawed nuclear weapon design to Iran — in James Risen’s 2006 book, State of War.

Reporting for Expose Facts, investigative journalist Marcy Wheeler said that during Sterling’s trial, witness after witness “made claims about how closely held the program was.”


“More closely held than any other program,” Walter C, a physicist who worked on the program described. “More closely held,” David Shedd, currently head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and head of Counterproliferation Operations until just after the Merlin op.

Of course, Bob S’ admission that — when FBI showed him a list, in 2003, of 90 people cleared into the program, he said it was incomplete — suggests all those claims are overstated.

Wheeler continued by saying that “details of just how careless the CIA was with Merlin’s identity raise further questions about claims that the operation — and especially Merlin’s identity — was closely held.” She noted that the thing that struck her most was “the revelation (Exhibit 17) that for months and months, Merlin was pitching his nuclear experience to Iran on an AOL account shared with his wife and kids. In the cable describing a January 12, 1999 meeting with Merlin (what appears to be the first where the two met alone) Sterling explained that Merlin had just opened a separate Hotmail account to use for his CIA spying.”


“[M] also opened another email account through Hotmail. [M] opened the new account so his family, who also utilizes his AOL account, cannot access his email related to the project.”

That means from at least April 15, 1998 (see Exhibit 8, though Exhibit 16 suggests the effort started in November 1997), when Merlin started trying to make contact with Iranians who might be interested in a Russian nuclear scientist, until January 1999, Merlin’s contacts with Iran were completely accessible to his wife (who, given the evidence — as opposed to the sworn claims — presented in the trial, almost certainly knew anyway) and his kids (who may not have).

Wheeler goes on to explain other security lapses with the CIA operation. She said it was ultimately the “loose operational security — and Merlin’s backlash to it” that appeared “to be one of the things that led Merlin to botch the operation…”

Last fall, Solomon and Wheeler co-authored an article for The Nation titled The Government War Against Reporter James Risen. The article’s subtitle–The vendetta against him and whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling reflects an antidemocratic goal: the uninformed consent of the governed.

Solomon and Wheeler noted that Jeffrey Sterling was usually “cast as a disgruntled ex-employee in trouble for allegedly spilling the classified beans” in news reports.

Solomon and Wheeler:

But the standard media narratives about Risen and Sterling have skipped over deep patterns of government retaliation against recalcitrant journalists and whistleblowers. Those patterns are undermining press freedom, precluding the informed consent of the governed and hiding crucial aspects of US foreign policy. The recent announcement of Eric Holder’s resignation as attorney general has come after nearly five years of the Obama administration extending and intensifying the use of the Justice Department for retribution against investigative journalism and whistleblowing.

Solomon and Wheeler also noted the role that John Brennan–the current Director of the CIA–had played in Sterling’s departure from the CIA years ago. They said that in 2000, “Sterling filed a discrimination complaint within the agency, asserting that he had been denied certain assignments because of his race. (Sterling was one of the CIA’s few African-American officers.) Brennan, as deputy executive director, was involved in rejecting Sterling’s claim. Sterling responded by suing the CIA; he was fired in 2002. The CIA rebuffed a number of settlement offers and then won dismissal of the entire lawsuit in 2004 after claiming that the litigation would expose state secrets.”

Retired CIA Analyst Ray McGovern (Consortiumnews.com):

But the real subtext of the Sterling case is how the politicization of the CIA’s analytical division over the past several decades has contributed to multiple intelligence failures, especially efforts to “prove” that targeted regimes in the Middle East were amassing weapons of mass destruction.

The false Iraq-WMD case provided the key rationale for a war that has spread devastation not only across Iraq but has prompted terrorism and other violence throughout the Middle East and into Europe. “Operation Merlin” – hatched during the Clinton administration – was part of a similar effort to show that Iran was engaged in an active program for building a nuclear bomb and thus would have interest in the flawed schematics that the CIA was peddling.

Yet, in the Sterling case, federal prosecutors seem to want to have it both ways. They want to broaden the case to burnish the CIA’s reputation regarding its covert-op skills but then to narrow the case if defense attorneys try to show the jury the broader context in which the “Merlin” disclosures were made in 2006 – how President George W. Bush’s administration was trying to build a case for war with Iran over its nuclear program much as it did over Iraq’s non-existent WMDs in 2002-2003.

Solomon–in his Huffington Post article:

Along the way, the CIA is eager to use the trial as much as possible for image damage control, trying to ascend high ground that has eroded in part due to high-quality journalistic accounts of the sort that Risen provided in his State of War reporting on Operation Merlin.

And the CIA wants a very harsh prison sentence to serve as a warning to others.

The CIA is on a quest for more respect — from news media, from lawmakers, from potential recruits — from anyone willing to defer to its authority, no matter how legally hypocritical or morally absent. Demolishing the life of Jeffrey Sterling is just another means to that end.

CIA Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling Convicted of Espionage (The Real News speaks with Marcy Wheeler)


I wonder what’s going to happen to former CIA Director General David Petraeus. Do think he’ll also be prosecuted for disclosing classified information to his lover Paula Broadwell?


CIA’s Merlin Was Arranging Fake Nuclear Deals on an AOL Account Shared with His Wife and Kids (Expose Facts)

Why the CIA Is So Eager to Demolish Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling (Huffington Post)

Jeffrey Sterling, Former CIA Officer, Is Convicted Of Espionage (NPR)

Criminal Wrongdoing and the CIA (Huffington Post)

C.I.A. Officer Is Found Guilty in Leak Tied to Times Reporter (New York Times)

The Government War Against Reporter James Risen–The vendetta against him and whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling reflects an antidemocratic goal: the uninformed consent of the governed. (The Nation)

‘Justice’ Hidden Behind a Screen (Consortiumnews.com)

This entry was posted in American History, CIA, Countries, Democracy, DOJ, FBI, Foreign Policy, Free Speech, George W. Bush, Government, Government Propaganda, Hypocrisy, Imperialism, Iran, Justice, Media, Political Science, Politics, Presidents, Prison, Propaganda, United States, US Military, War, War on "Terror", World History and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to What You Should Know about “Operation Merlin,” Jeffrey Sterling, the CIA, the Obama Administration and Whistleblowers

  1. blouise says:

    I wonder what’s going to happen to former CIA Director General David Petraeus. Do think he’ll also be prosecuted for disclosing classified information to his lover Paula Broadwell? – Elaine

    The New York Times, citing anonymous “officials,” reported that prosecutors have recommended that the retired Army general face charges based on the discovery of classified information on his former paramour’s computer. The FBI found this information when they were investigating her for cyberstalking back in December of 2012. Petraeus has been quoted as denying that he provided classified information to Broadwell. Broadwell also previously has denied getting classified documents from Petraeus.

    Petraeus served as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from September 6, 2011, until his resignation on November 9, 2012. The nature of the classified material has not been released. Was it DoD stuff or CIA stuff?

    Petraeus “made a mistake … “But … it’s done, it’s over. He’s retired. He’s lost his job. How much does the government want?” (Dianne Feinstein)

    Well, Senator, considering the unprecedented crackdown on government officials who reveal secrets to journalists and that Petraeus’ mistress was a journalist and he was a government official … one would expect the Justice Department to come down very hard on Petraeus … right?

  2. Elaine M. says:

    It’s a tragedy that our government goes after people like Sterling and John Kiriakou–and not the real villains and torturers, isn’t it?

  3. Inga says:

    Yes it is. Seems like no one gets prosecuted but the whistleblowers. I’ve heard those psychologists that developed the torture program called “patriots and heroes” by the Republican spokesmouthes at FOX. At least Democrats got the Torture Report published, but to what end?

  4. blouise says:

    Well, you know, Petraeus just made a mistake. I mean, he’s just, you know, kinda dumb and didn’t mean anything by it. Yada, yada.

    Now the last time I checked, there was no IQ test for entering the criminal class … most of them are kinda dumb and they tend to make mistakes which is how they get caught. Just like Petraeus.

  5. po says:

    Besides the charges on Sterling, the choice of venue for the trial and the jury composition, along with the prosecution claiming that it couldn’t really reveal how it was hurt for fear of further damage to the CIA- which made it so no one could really refute the arguments made- all of it made sure that a conviction was unavoidable.
    Between the many “journalists” who took the blue pill, and the few left to take the red pill, the government and its allies are making sure that whatever it is we know is shaped and shared through them.
    This is making it even more important to stand up on behalf of those who are still fighting the good fight at the cost of their freedom.

  6. Elaine M. says:

    Norman Solomon
    Author, ‘War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death’
    CIA Mission: Perfume the Stench of ‘Operation Merlin’
    Posted: 02/03/2015

    The leak trial of CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling never got near a smoking gun, but the entire circumstantial case was a smokescreen. Prosecutors were hell-bent on torching the defendant to vindicate Operation Merlin, nine years after a book by James Risen reported that it “may have been one of the most reckless operations in the modern history of the CIA.”

    That bestselling book, State of War, seemed to leave an indelible stain on Operation Merlin while soiling the CIA’s image as a reasonably competent outfit. The prosecution of Sterling was a cleansing service for the Central Intelligence Agency, which joined with the Justice Department to depict the author and the whistleblower as scurrilous mud-throwers.

    In the courtroom, where journalist Risen was beyond the reach of the law, the CIA’s long-smoldering rage vented at the defendant. Sterling had gone through channels in 2003 to warn Senate Intelligence Committee staffers about Operation Merlin, and he was later indicted for allegedly giving Risen classified information about it. For CIA officials, the prosecution wasn’t only to punish Sterling and frighten potential whistleblowers; it was also about payback, rewriting history and assisting with a PR comeback for the operation as well as the agency.

    Last week, the jury — drawn from an area of Northern Virginia that is home to CIA headquarters, the Pentagon and a large number of contractors for the military-industrial-intelligence complex — came back with guilty verdicts on all counts. The jurors had heard from a succession of CIA witnesses as well as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, extolling Operation Merlin and deploring any effort to lift its veil of secrecy.

    During the first half of the government’s six days of testimony, the prosecution seemed to be defending Operation Merlin more than prosecuting Jeffrey Sterling.

    Prosecutors defamed Sterling’s character in opening and closing arguments, but few CIA witnesses had anything bad to say about him. The notable exception, CIA official David Cohen — who ran the agency’s New York office when Sterling worked there — testified that “his performance was extremely sub-par.” Cohen’s affect on the stand gave new meaning to the term hostile witness. He exuded major antipathy toward Sterling, who had been one of the CIA’s few American-American case officers. Sterling filed a racial bias lawsuit before the agency fired him.

    “In the wake of 9/11, Cohen moved from the CIA to the NYPD,” Marcy Wheeler wrote. “In 2002, he got a federal court to relax the Handschu guidelines, which had been set up in 1985 in response to NYPD’s targeting of people for their political speech. … After getting the rules relaxed, Cohen created teams of informants that infiltrated mosques and had officers catalog Muslim-owned restaurants, shops, and even schools.”

    From the government’s standpoint in the courtroom, the worse it could make Sterling look, the better the CIA and Operation Merlin would look, and vice versa. Throughout the trial, prosecutors put forward their case as a kind of seesaw, elevating the operation while pushing Sterling into the dirt — repeatedly depicting the defendant as a bitter malcontent who failed to appreciate the nobility and great expertise that went into Operation Merlin.

    “It was a brilliant operation,” a Russian scientist exclaimed in a videotaped deposition. Known as Mr. Merlin during the trial, he had played a central role in Operation Merlin, delivering flawed design materials for a nuclear weapon component to an Iranian office in Vienna back in 2000. (The scientist was a recipient of several hundred thousand dollars as a CIA “human asset.”) In theory, those materials would send Iran’s government down a dead-end technical path.

    Mr. Merlin’s testimony, passably smooth under government questioning, turned into a hash during cross examination. Well before the defense was done with the Russian, the unraveling of his performance made it easy to see why the government had tried to exclude him as a witness, claiming he was too ill to testify.

  7. Elaine M. says:

    CIA allegedly considered giving Iraq flawed nuclear plans, just like Iran

    A court document from the CIA leak trial against accused whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling reportedly shows Iraq could have been the second target of the agency’s Clinton-era plan to deliver flawed nuclear weapons blueprints via “Operation Merlin.”

    Examining documents entered as evidence in the prosecution of Sterling, a former CIA employee, journalists have found multiple indictors that after Iran, Iraq and other countries might have been given flawed nuclear bomb plans. Experts think the flaws could have easily been reverse-engineered to create a functioning nuclear device.

  8. po says:

    Between giving “rogue” nations nuclear weapons plans and Mexican drug gangs automatic weapons, we are surely flying by the seat of our pants.
    One more interesting point about Sterling that someone brought up, is that his only recourse against racial discrimination is to file for racial discrimination, yet filing for racial discrimination ensures that he becomes scrutinized, targeted and suspected by his employer, the CIA. Pretty tough choice to make.

  9. Elaine M. says:

    The Revenge of the CIA: Scapegoating Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling
    By Norman Solomon
    January 15, 2015

    This week, in a federal courtroom, I’ve heard a series of government witnesses testify behind a screen while expounding on a central precept of the national security state: The CIA can do no wrong.

    Those CIA employees and consultants are more than mere loyalists for an agency that soaks up $15 billion a year and continues to loosen the bonds of accountability. The docket says “United States of America v. Jeffrey Alexander Sterling,” but a more discerning title would be “National Security State v. The Public’s Right to Know.”

    For the first time in 30 years, a case has gone to trial in a civilian court under the Espionage Act with charges that the defendant gave classified information to news media. Not far from the CIA headquarters in Northern Virginia, legal jargon is flying around the courtroom, but the law has very little to do with this case.

    Top officials in the U.S. government leak classified information all the time, without punishment. But Jeffrey Sterling was not a top official. He’s a former CIA officer, charged with giving classified information to journalist James Risen about a CIA operation that provided Iran with flawed nuclear weapon blueprints — information that appeared in Risen’s 2006 book State of War.

    Hearing the testimony from CIA operatives, it’s clear that the agency is extremely eager to make an example of Sterling. Despite all the legalisms, the overarching reality is that the case against Sterling is scarcely legal — it is cravenly political.

    If it were otherwise, the last two CIA directors to leave their posts — General David Petraeus and Leon Panetta — would be going through the same kind of ordeal that Sterling has been enduring. There’s hefty evidence that both Petraeus and Panetta leaked classified information while running the agency. But these days they’re busy getting rich, not in danger of imprisonment for the rest of their lives.

  10. Elaine M. says:


    Monday’s guilty verdict in the trial of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling on espionage charges — for talking to a newspaper reporter — is the latest milepost on the dark and dismal path Barack Obama has traveled since his inaugural promises to usher in a “new era of openness.”

    Far from rejecting the authoritarian bent of his presidential predecessor, Obama has simply adjusted it, adding his own personal touches, most notably an enthusiasm for criminally prosecuting the kinds of leaks that are essential to a free press.

    The Sterling case – especially in light of Obama’s complicity in the cover-up of torture during the Bush administration – sends a clear message to people in government service: You won’t get in trouble as long as you do what you’re told (even torture people). But if you talk to a reporter and tell him something we want kept secret, we will spare no effort to destroy you.

    There’s really no sign any more of the former community organizer who joyously declared on his first full day in office that “there’s been too much secrecy in this city… Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known.”

    Instead, as author Scott Horton explained to me a few weeks ago, Obama’s thinking on these issues was swayed by John Brennan, the former senior adviser he eventually named CIA director. And for Brennan and his ilk, secrecy is a core value — partly for legitimate national security reasons and partly as an impregnable shield against embarrassment and accountability.

    The Sterling case was until recently an even more direct attack on a free press, as Obama administration prosecutors repeatedly demanded testimony from New York Times reporter James Risen, who wrote about the botched plot against the Iranian government that they charged Sterling with divulging…


    Meanwhile, former CIA officer John Kiriakou is in prison, serving the last days of his over two-year sentence not for torturing anyone, but for revealing information on torture to a reporter.

    Stephen Kim, a former State Department official who pled guilty to leaking classified information to a Fox News reporter, faces 13 months in prison.

    And Thomas Drake, a former NSA official who provided classified information about mismanagement at his agency to a Baltimore Sun reporter, endured a four-year persecution by the government that the federal judge in his case called “unconscionable,” before prosecutors dropped all 10 felony charges and settled for a single guilty plea on a misdemeanor. The government’s message nevertheless was loud and clear. As secrecy expert Steven Aftergood told me: “In every significant sense, the government won, because it demonstrated the price of nonconformity.”

    All of this has been happening during a two-decade-long shift in the cultural norms of the U.S. government, whereby reporters are now routinely blocked from communicating with staff unless they are tracked and/or monitored by public relations controllers.

    And government officials are being told very clearly that their personal right to free speech does not extend to their work life, nowhere more clearly than in the intelligence community, where a new directive forbids employees from discussing “intelligence-related information” with a reporter unless they have specific authorization to do so, even if it’s unclassified.

  11. eniobob says:

    “Elaine M. says:
    February 7, 2015 at 6:21 pm

    It’s a tragedy that our government goes after people like Sterling and John Kiriakou–and not the real villains and torturers, isn’t it?”

    I call them “Sterling and John Kiriakou” that is.Lid Keepers.

  12. Pingback: CIA Whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling’s “Trial by Metadata”: Does It Set a Dangerous Precedent for Free Speech Rights in the United States? | Flowers For Socrates

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