In a clumsy effort to sabotage Iran's nuclear program, the CIA in 2004 intentionally handed Tehran some top-secret bomb designs laced with a hidden flaw that U.S. officials hoped would doom any weapon made from them, according to a new book about the U.S. intelligence agency.
But the Iranians were tipped to the scheme by the Russian defector hired by the CIA to deliver the plans and may have gleaned scientific information useful for designing a bomb, writes New York Times reporter James Risen in "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration."
The clandestine CIA effort was just one of many alleged intelligence failures during the Bush administration, according to the book.
Risen also cites intelligence gaffes that fueled the Bush administration's case for war against Saddam Hussein, spawned a culture of torture throughout the U.S. military and encouraged the rise of heroin cultivation and trafficking in postwar Afghanistan.
Even before the book's release Tuesday, its main revelation -- that President Bush authorized a secret effort by another intelligence outfit, the National Security Agency, to eavesdrop on unsuspecting Americans without court-approved warrants -- had created a storm of controversy when it was reported last month in the New York Times in an article coauthored by Risen.
In the book, Risen says he based his accounts on interviews with dozens of intelligence officials who, while unnamed, had proved reliable in the past.
Bush has confirmed the existence of the program, but condemned the newspaper for the December report and for its use of confidential sources.
The CIA added its own criticism Tuesday, saying the book contains "serious inaccuracies."
The NSA domestic spying controversy is at the heart of an intensifying debate over whether the president has overstepped his authority in fighting the U.S.-declared war on terrorism by not adequately consulting or allowing oversight from Congress and the courts.
The Justice Department disclosed Friday that it was conducting a criminal investigation to find out who leaked classified details of the domestic spying program.
The book's release date was moved up in the wake of the NSA controversy, and it provides additional details of that domestic spying effort, in which Bush did not seek permission for domestic wiretaps from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The New York Times delayed for a year publication of its article on the NSA's domestic spying, in part because of personal requests from the president. Critics have questioned whether the paper could have published the information before last year's presidential election if it had decided against a delay. Newspaper officials have refused to comment on reasons for the delay or on the exact timing.
Top New York Times officials also refused to publish a news article about the reported CIA plot to give intentionally flawed nuclear plans to Iran, according to a person briefed on the newspaper's conversations by one of the participants. That person said the New York Times withheld publication at the request of the White House and former CIA Director George J. Tenet.
U.S. officials have long maintained that Iran's rulers want to develop nuclear weapons, but Tehran has insisted that it seeks to develop only a civilian nuclear energy program. Whatever the case, the CIA was desperate to counter what it believed was a clandestine nuclear program, and turned to a Russian defector who had once been a nuclear scientist in the former Soviet republics, according to the book.
The book says the CIA worked with the U.S.-based defector to concoct a story about how he was destitute, but in possession of valuable nuclear weapons blueprints that had been secreted out of Russia.
CIA officials had concerns about the man's reliability, Risen says, but sent the defector and the blueprints to Vienna anyway, with orders to hand-deliver them to someone at Tehran's diplomatic mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
His CIA handlers never imagined that the Russian defector would tip off the Iranians to the fatal flaw that they had hidden deep within the blueprints. But that, the book adds, is exactly what the Russian did, in part because the CIA failed to send anybody to accompany him out of fear that it might make the Iranians suspicious.
The book does not say whether Iran used the plans, but reports that a senior Iranian official visiting Vienna appears to have taken them immediately to Tehran after the defector dropped them off.
"He [the Russian] was the front man for what may have been one of the most reckless operations in the modern history of the CIA, one that may have helped put nuclear weapons in the hands of a charter member of what President George W. Bush has called the axis of evil," the book contends.
Two nuclear weapons experts who say that they have no knowledge about whether the covert effort described in the book occurred added that a deliberate flaw in the plans could have been easily found by the Iranians.
"Iran has excellent scientists and any information related to weapons designs could move its program ahead," said a European nuclear weapons expert, who refused to allow his name to be used because his government prohibits comments on nuclear weapons or designs.
David Albright, a former weapons inspector for the IAEA, agreed with the other expert that the plans could have shaved many years off Iran's nuclear effort.
"I wouldn't call it a colossal failure" by the CIA, said Albright, now president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. "But I don't quite understand the purpose of it, why you would want to hand something like this to the Iranians. It's unlikely to work."
According to the book, the CIA effort to sabotage Iran's nuclear effort came on the heels of another massive intelligence failure, in which a CIA officer mistakenly sent an Iranian agent a trove of information that could help identify nearly every one of the spy agency's undercover operatives in Iran.
The Iranian was a double agent who turned over the data to Iranian authorities. They used it to dismantle the CIA's spy network inside the country and arrest or possibly kill an unknown number of U.S. agents, the book says.