The Magazine

Not Every Leak Is Fit to Print

Why have federal prosecutors subpoenaed a New York Times reporter?

Feb 18, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 22 • By GABRIEL SCHOENFELD
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Investigations of national-security leaks in Washington are not all that rare. But until Judith Miller of the New York Times was sent to jail for 85 days by a special prosecutor digging into the Valerie Plame imbroglio, investigations of such leaks in which journalists are subpoenaed were about as common as unicorns wandering the National Mall.

We now have another such unicorn. On January 24, a federal grand jury in Alexandria issued a subpoena to James Risen of the New York Times, seeking information about who in the U.S. government provided him with classified information that he published in his book, State of War. That book appeared in January 2006, more than two years ago. The CIA may have a hard time keeping secrets, but the Justice Department, we are learning now that this long-running leak inquest has come to light, seems to be very good at it.

There are at least two possibilities why Risen was issued a subpoena. One is that his book badly embarrassed the CIA by exposing incompetence well beyond its familiar inability to keep secrets. In referring the breach to the Justice Department for investigation, the CIA is paying him back. The subpoena, in other words, is part and parcel of a cover-up of agency bungling.

Another explanation is that, thanks to Risen's book, valuable intelligence sources and methods were compromised, damage was done to national security, and the Justice Department has been tasked with tracking down the malefactors in the intelligence community who broke their oaths of secrecy, violated the law, and dropped classified information of value to American adversaries into the public domain. Because Risen is the only one who knows their identity, he is being hauled before a grand jury.

Daniel Schorr of NPR is a proponent of the first theory. He sees a CIA "enraged" by the leak of its "colossal failure" and striking back. I would bet the agency's Farm that he is wrong. And that the second theory is closer to the mark.

According to Risen's lawyer, David N. Kelley--a former federal prosecutor now of Cahill Gordon & Reindel-- the subpoena is focused on a chapter in Risen's book dealing with Iran. Part of it recounts an agency foul-up in 2004 with a system that made it 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." In short order, thanks to a botched transmission, the entire roster of American spies in Iran was rolled up. The CIA, according to Risen, was left "virtually blind in Iran, unable to provide any significant intelligence on one of the most critical issues facing the United States--whether Tehran was about to go nuclear."

The same chapter in State of War also extensively examines Operation Merlin, the codename for a CIA plan to funnel subtly flawed plans for the trigger of a nuclear device to Iran. The idea behind the scheme, according to Risen, was to induce the Iranians to rely on bad blueprints in building their bomb so that "instead of a mushroom cloud, the Iranian scientists would witness a disappointing fizzle." Along with the setback to their nuclear program, the Iranians would suffer humiliation before the world.

In State of War, Risen makes the Merlin plan seem harebrained. He notes, for one thing, that the émigré Russian scientist who was to deliver the Trojan Horse documents to the Iranians was able to spot the planted error at a glance. Risen points out that Iran possesses "a strong base of sophisticated scientists" who also would be "knowledgeable enough to spot flaws in nuclear blueprints," and that "[e]ven if the Iranians were interested in using the blueprints provided by the mysterious Russian, they would certainly examine and test the data in the documents before ever actually trying to build a bomb."

Risen also points to the dangers inherent in any intelligence program that passes nuclear information to an adversary, even if some of the information is designed to mislead. "If mishandled," he writes, such an initiative "could easily help an enemy accelerate its weapons development." In this instance, a CIA case officer, he reports, was convinced that exactly that might occur. The officer grew so concerned "that he went to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to tell congressional investigators about the problems." But no action was taken.