Condoleezza Rice 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.”
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.”
Late last week, Attorney General Eric Holder declared America to be “at war” with “lone wolf” attackers. Impossibly immediately and convenient, the FBI has announced multiple arrests and multiple “plots” foiled by FBI informants, who typically seem to have done materially all of the plotting themselves before making the arrests.
The higher profile arrest came yesterday, when the FBI arrested a 20-year-old Cincinnati man, whose father described him as a “mama’s boy” who never left home. The man had a Twitter account under a fake name where he expressed support for ISIS, and the FBI claimed he was going to use pipe bombs to blow up the Capitol building.
Officials are eagerly presenting it as a plot that was “ready to go,” but his father presents him as an immature recluse, and classmates from high school certainly didn’t see him as ISIS, irrespective of him having some vague interest in philosophical anarchy.
The other “foiled” plot was three men from northwest Georgia who said anti-government things in a chat room, and were convinced by the FBI to come to Tennessee to get some phony explosives to blow up an Atlanta police station.
In both cases, as is so often the case with FBI “foiled” plots, it started with people saying something online, and then having FBI informants basically plan out the entire scheme for them, then try to coax them into agreeing to it, at least enough that they could be arrested.
The federal government claims it is prosecuting former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling for leaking information to a journalist about a risky covert operation in which the spy agency funneled flawed nuclear-bomb schematics to Iran. But the opening days of the trial suggest that the government may be using the case more to overcome its reputation for shoddy intelligence work.
In opening statements and testimony on Wednesday, prosecutors seemed more concerned about refuting journalist/author James Risen’s assessment of the CIA’s scheme as botched and dangerous than in connecting Risen to Sterling. Eliciting testimony from a nuclear engineer testifying behind a screen, prosecutors sought to portray the phony-blueprint gambit as meticulous and careful.
The dispute seems to center on whether the Russian operative code-named “Merlin,” who was assigned to deliver the documents to Iranian representatives, easily detected the flaws, as Risen wrote in his 2006 book, State of War, or simply noticed that some pages were missing. An internal team of CIA experts – when asked to examine the schematics – spotted about 25 percent of the errors, but there is a clash of opinions over whether that showed how easy it was to unmask the fraud or how difficult it was to spot the flaws.
None of that, however, relates to whether Sterling was or was not a source for Risen regarding the “Merlin” operation, proof that may prove difficult for U.S. prosecutors to establish because Risen, a New York Times’ national security reporter, has an array of sources within the intelligence community from whom to draw. Since the Justice Department has dropped attempts to force Risen to identify his sources, prosecutors may find it hard to substantiate that Sterling was one of the sources for the “Merlin” disclosures.
On January 9, two days after the massive Paris march condemning the brutal attack on freedom of the press, a young Saudi prisoner named Raif Badawi was removed from his cell in shackles and taken to a public square in Jeddah. There he was flogged 50 times before hundreds of spectators who had just finished midday prayers. The 50 lashes – labeled by Amnesty International a "vicious act of cruelty" – was the first installment on his sentence of 1,000 floggings, as well as ten years in prison and a fine of $266,000. Badawi’s crime? Blogging.
The father of three young children, Badawi hosted the website known as Free Saudi Liberals, a forum intended to promote a lively exchange of ideas among Saudis. Badawi wrote about the advantages of separating religion and state, asserting that secularism was "the practical solution to lift countries (including ours) out of the third world and into the first world." He accused Saudi clerics and the government of distorting Islam to promote authoritarianism. Unlike the Saudi rulers, Badawi cheered the Egyptian uprising against Hosni Mubarak, calling it a decisive turning point not only for Egypt but "everywhere that is governed by the Arab mentality of dictatorship."
In mid-2012, Badawi was arrested for his blogs, including an article in which he was accused of ridiculing the kingdom’s religious police, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. He was also charged for failing to remove "offensive posts" written by others. The prosecution originally called for him to be tried for "apostasy", or abandoning his religion, which carries the death penalty.
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.
Paris killings wrong, but inevitable due to France’s militarism
Following the killing of 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, nearly 4 million people marched in anti-terrorism rallies in France, making it the largest action in the country’s history.
Too bad those people haven’t been protesting France’s recent military ventures. Maybe then the attacks in Paris would have never happened.
Je suis un fauteur de guerre (I am a war monger)
France has a reputation of being an intellectual people. If this were indeed true then the French would understand that the attacks were probably a result of their country’s militarism, not because of an assault on press freedoms. Ironically the people of France now sound like George W. Bush who claimed the attacks on 9/11 were because al-Qaeda hated so-called American freedom.