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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In State of War, Risen provides an impressive array of details about Operation Merlin. But how do we know he has a full or accurate story? When writing about classified programs, investigative journalists attempt to assemble a picture from bits and pieces of information that are provided to them by confidential informants. Because intelligence information is tightly compartmentalized, these inside sources, unless they are at the top echelon, have only a partial grasp themselves of what the CIA is doing. They also always have an agenda of their own--to torpedo certain policies and/or advance their own careers. Journalists relying on such sources inevitably draw a picture that is skewed and incomplete. They not only lack all the pieces, they do not know what is true and what is false. Most important, they do not know what they do not know, including what kind of harm their reporting might inflict on the United States. In other words, they are groping in a dark room with a dagger in their hands.

Risen is expert at gaining the confidence of sources in the intelligence world and inducing them to tell him what they know. He is strikingly less adroit at making sense of what his sources tell him. At one juncture, Risen is at great pains to demonstrate that the Russian scientist used by the CIA as an intermediary wrote an unauthorized letter to the Iranians alerting them to the fact that the blueprints were deliberately flawed. After repeatedly hammering on this point, he reprints the text of the letter. It is in slightly broken English, but it says nothing of the sort.

At another juncture, Risen calls Merlin "one of the most reckless operations in the modern history of the CIA." Indeed, the chapter about Merlin is called "A Rogue Operation." But in what sense does Merlin qualify for an appellation that conjures up images of an unaccountable CIA launching missions on its own? The answer, supplied by Risen himself, is in no sense. After a long disquisition about how the CIA was "flying blind--dangerously so," he pirouettes to inform us that Operation Merlin was "first approved by President Bill Clinton" and subsequently "endorsed" by the Bush administration. In other words, far from carrying out a rogue operation, the CIA was proceeding under appropriate control.

Throughout the chapter, and indeed throughout the book, Risen reveals a trait that raises questions of another sort about State of War. The Merlin operation, he writes, had been conceived "in the darkest corner" of the American national-security establishment. The Russian émigré scientist in the employ of the CIA "stood out like a poor eastern cousin on Vienna's jeweled cityscape." As he approached his dropoff point, he experienced a "fevered rush of adrenaline." The fever "suddenly cooled when he realized the Iranian office was closed for the day." A depiction of the NSA as an "evil, rogue organization that used its cutting-edge technology to spy on and persecute unwitting Americans" had the effect of sending "shivers through [Michael] Hayden," who was running the agency at the time.

State of War is constructed almost entirely of breathless prose like this. In other words, in discussing the delicate game of intelligence, Risen writes on the level of the fictive Franklin W. Dixon, "author" of the Hardy Boys. His political analysis, in which "neoconservatives" in the Pentagon and White House are perpetually doing battle with State Department officials who are repeatedly "stunned" by the audacity of the "hardliners," is a perfect match to his tot-lot style.

The New York Times, which published some of the revelations in Risen's book--most notably his reporting about the NSA's Terrorist Surveillance Program--printed not a word about Operation Merlin. Why were they willing to allow their own reporter to scoop them on an important story? Were the editors of the Times worried about Risen's sourcing? Or were they troubled by something else? (The Times, always pressing relentlessly for openness in government, refuses to comment on its own internal deliberations.)

If that is suggestive, several other things also stand out in Risen's account of Operation Merlin that make the issuance of the federal subpoena more comprehensible. One of them is Merlin's highly sensitive nature. Risen himself notes that it was classified as SAP, a "special-access program," beyond top-secret. Knowledge of it was confined to "only a handful of CIA officers." Even the CIA station in Vienna, where the document transfer was to take place, was kept in the dark. Second, Risen states baldly that the National Security Agency was "eavesdropping on the telephone lines of the Iranian mission in Vienna," that it also "had broken the codes" of Iran's intelligence ministry, and that it was able to ascertain when the nuclear blueprints were picked up.