Yeah, but … the Iran story?

So it sounds like a bad spy novel, doesn’t it?

She had probably done this a dozen times before. Modern digital technology had made clandestine communications with overseas agents seem routine. Back in the cold war, contacting a secret agent in Moscow or Beijing was a dangerous, labour-intensive process that could take days or even weeks. But by 2004, it was possible to send high-speed, encrypted messages directly and instantaneously from CIA headquarters to agents in the field who were equipped with small, covert personal communications devices. So the officer at CIA headquarters assigned to handle communications with the agency’s spies in Iran probably didn’t think twice when she began her latest download. With a few simple commands, she sent a secret data flow to one of the Iranian agents in the CIA’s spy network. Just as she had done so many times before.

But this time, the ease and speed of the technology betrayed her. The CIA officer had made a disastrous mistake. She had sent information to one Iranian agent that exposed an entire spy network; the data could be used to identify virtually every spy the CIA had inside Iran.

Mistake piled on mistake. As the CIA later learned, the Iranian who received the download was a double agent. The agent quickly turned the data over to Iranian security officials, and it enabled them to “roll up” the CIA’s network throughout Iran. CIA sources say that several of the Iranian agents were arrested and jailed, while the fates of some of the others is still unknown.

This espionage disaster, of course, was not reported. It left the CIA virtually blind in Iran, unable to provide any significant intelligence on one of the most critical issues facing the US – whether Tehran was about to go nuclear.

The excerpt of James Risen’s The State of War goes on to suggest something even more bizarre: a scheme in which … are you ready? … the CIA gave a Russian defector technical data for nuclear weapons to hand over to the Iranians in order to figure out what they knew and had in their nuclear program.

Wait a minute … it doesn’t sound like a bad spy novel, per se. I mean, well, that’s the thing. I never read LeCarre’s The Russia House, but I saw the movie. And, well … yeah. There seems to be something familiar here going on. And while the stories aren’t identical, the outcome of Risen’s seems almost predictable.

The Russian studied the blueprints the CIA had given him. Within minutes of being handed the designs, he had identified a flaw. “This isn’t right,” he told the CIA officers gathered around the hotel room. “There is something wrong.” His comments prompted stony looks, but no straight answers from the CIA men. No one in the meeting seemed surprised by the Russian’s assertion that the blueprints didn’t look quite right, but no one wanted to enlighten him further on the matter, either.

In fact, the CIA case officer who was the Russian’s personal handler had been stunned by his statement. During a break, he took the senior CIA officer aside. “He wasn’t supposed to know that,” the CIA case officer told his superior. “He wasn’t supposed to find a flaw.”

“Don’t worry,” the senior CIA officer calmly replied. “It doesn’t matter.”

And perhaps it didn’t. Perhaps that was the point. Maybe the CIA intended that the Russian defector should tip off the Iranians that the data he was giving them had problems.

In Vienna, however, the Russian unsealed the envelope with the nuclear blueprints and included a personal letter of his own to the Iranians. No matter what the CIA told him, he was going to hedge his bets. There was obviously something wrong with the blueprints – so he decided to mention that fact to the Iranians in his letter. They would certainly find flaws for themselves, and if he didn’t tell them first, they would never want to deal with him again.

The Russian was thus warning the Iranians as carefully as he could that there was a flaw somewhere in the nuclear blueprints, and he could help them find it. At the same time, he was still going through with the CIA’s operation in the only way he thought would work.

The whole thing seems bizarre. James Bamford reviewed the book for Risen’s paper, The New York Times, and noted,

And despite the critical need for intelligence on Iran, Mr. Risen says, a C.I.A. communications officer accidentally sent detailed information to the wrong indigenous agent in Tehran that outlined the agency’s entire network. “The Iranian who received the download was actually a double agent,” Mr. Risen writes. The mistake enabled the Iranians “to ‘roll up’ the C.I.A.’s agent network throughout Iran,” says Mr. Risen, although the details are disputed by the C.I.A.

But while “State of War” has interesting and important new details, it also has almost no named sources – not even the comments of former intelligence or government officials, who might provide perspective, context and credibility. It is an unusual move for someone writing about such an important subject.

So … right. There are all manner of reasons one might do this. Perhaps the information is sensitive. Maybe Risen was shooting for a certain narrative quality that would be marred by footnotes and the usual qualifiers. Walter Isaacson, in a second review for the Times, noted,

So what are we to believe in a book that relies heavily on leaks from disgruntled sources? We are in an age where the consumer of information has to make an educated guess about what percentage of assertions in books like this are true. My own guess is that Risen has earnest sources for everything he reports but that they don’t all know the full story, thus resulting in a book that smells like it’s 80 percent true. If that sounds deeply flawed, let me add that if he had relied on no anonymous sources and reported instead only the on-the-record line from official spinners, the result would very likely have been only half as true.

So the whole thing sounded bizarre, and I wondered if it was even true. I went so far as to look up the book at my local library. And it was there, waiting for me. That was early November. I still haven’t read it. In fact, I forgot all about it. Until I read Glenn Greenwald’s post yesterday at Salon.

Ever since the President’s illegal warrantless eavesdropping program was revealed by the New York Times’ Jim Risen and Eric Lichtblau back in December, 2005, there has been a faction of neoconservatives and other extremists on the Right calling for the NYT reporters and editors to be criminally prosecuted — led by the likes of Bill Kristol (now of the NYT), Bill Bennett (of CNN), Commentary Magazine and many others. In May, 2006, Alberto Gonzales went on ABC News and revealed that the DOJ had commenced a criminal investigation into the leak, and then “raised the possibility that New York Times journalists could be prosecuted for publishing classified information” ….

…. Eighteen months have passed since Gonzales’ threats, and while there have been some signs that the investigation continues — former DOJ official Jack Goldsmith, for instance, described how he was accosted and handed a Subpoena by FBI agents in the middle of Harvard Square, demanding to know what he knew about the NSA leak — there had no further public evidence that the DOJ intended to pursue Risen and Lichtblau. Until now.

Yesterday, the NYT reported that Jim Risen was served with a grand jury Subpoena, compelling him to disclose the identity of the confidential source(s) for disclosures in his 2006 book, State of War. The Subpoena seeks disclosure of Risen’s sources not for the NSA program (for which he and Lichtblau won a Pulitzer Prize), but rather, for Risen’s reporting on CIA efforts to infiltrate Iran’s nuclear program. Nonetheless, Risen’s work on State of War is what led to his discovery that the Bush administration was illegally spying on Americans without the warrants required by law.

Say huh? Really? The Iran story?

The Iran story?

Let me get this straight: Mukasey has issued a subpoena for Risen’s source on the Iran story?

Greenwald reflects on the reasons for such a subpoena, but the clamor for prosecuting New York Times journalists Risen and Eric Lichtblau, and also editor Bill Keller had to do with the wiretapping story. Nonetheless, Greenwald notes, Commentary Magazine‘s Gabriel Schoenfeld gloats and even suggests he’s responsible for nudging Attorney General Mukasey to issue the subpoena.

But, still … the Iran story?

It wasn’t so much that I didn’t believe it. Rather, I didn’t want to believe it. It was at once strange and mundane. Strange because it seemed so much like a movie or novel or something. Mundane because they got screwed in the end, and while I didn’t expect it eighteen years ago watching Connery and Pfeiffer on the screen, LeCarre’s story was the first thing I thought of when I got to the part about the Russian defector tipping off the Iranians. It seemed almost obvious. Like a Dear Abby letter: if he leaves his wife for you, he will leave you for the next one.

I felt like I could see it coming. And if I can see it coming ….

I mean, really, that’s what the subpoena is about? The Iran story.

God damn it.