You Can’t Use the Same Trick Over and Over

If you use the same trick over and over, it becomes routine and eventually the people you’re trying to trick begin to play against your game, instead of falling for it.

The whole story is still pretty vague, but the short form is: in 1997 the CIA leaked altered plans for a nuclear weapon to Iran, hoping to delay the Iranian nuclear program by inducing mistakes. That’s the generous view of it – the less generous view of it was that it was bait so that they could learn how serious the Iranians were in their nuclear ambitions, by getting them to try to source certain materials, and by tracking/finding the document. After all, if I give you some nuclear weapons plans, then I can “find” them again later and say it’s evidence you have a nuclear weapons program. It was called “Operation Merlin.” [wik]

During the cold war, the CIA allegedly pulled off a similar operation against the Soviets, called “The Farewell Dossier” [wik][cia view] – Soviet intelligence was collecting certain high-tech information (space shuttle designs, programmable logic controllers, energy systems automation) and French/CIA intelligence fed them a bunch of stuff that mostly worked but had been jiggered to be doomed to fail. Allegedly this operation was fairly successful and some sources blame/credit it with causing the Chelyabisnk pipeline disaster (“an explosion big enough you could see it from a satellite”). If you step inside the wilderness of mirrors and ask “what is true” it’s just as likely that the Farewell Dossier was an attempt by the CIA to make itself look good at relatively low cost: “hey, look how clever we are!” Reputations have been built on less.

What if it should be 9.2mm?

The problem with these stories is that we don’t really know what’s truth and what’s fiction; it’s classified to either protect the operatives or incompetents. There are several stories of the blowback, and they range from simple: “The Iranians spotted it” to complicated: “The Soviets spotted it, told the Iranians, and the Iranians scooped up the entire CIA apparatus in Iran and pretty much shut down the CIA’s capabilities in that country for several years.” Another interpretation of the events is that the Iranians were able to learn more about making nuclear weapons by spotting the errors – they discovered what parts of engineering a bomb are particularly tricky. [Richard Feynman once said making a bomb is not a big secret, it’s just “a lot of precision engineering.”]

James Risen’s source for information about Operation Merlin, Jeffrey Sterling, was convicted for leaking secrets and sentenced to 42 months in prison. Another problem with these sorts of disinformation operations: it’s easy to backtrack the stories to their sources – easy for the CIA to backtrack its leaks, easy for the Iranians to backtrack the falsified plans. [cryptome]

Risen’s take on Operation Merlin is bleak:

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, labor-intensive process that could take days or even weeks to arrange. 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 like 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 meant for 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 actually a double agent. The agent quickly turned the data over to Iranian security officials, and it enabled them to “roll up” the CIA’s agent 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.

Jeffrey Sterling: thrown under the bus

The entire chapter about Operation Merlin is on cryptome, and it’s pretty interesting. Both the Farewell Dossier and Operation Merlin smell fishy to me: the premise is that other engineers will simply take the falsified documents and slavishly copy from them. That’s not how actual engineers work, especially not nuclear engineers: they notice that something doesn’t look quite right and they ask around and figure things out. Reading the accounts of the Pakistani nuclear program Eating Grass [wc] we can see that engineers like A. Q. Khan understood and improved on advanced designs (Khan learned his nuclear engineering working for Siemens in Germany) – it seems to me that some of these “falsified plans” strategies assume an unrealistic amount of cargo cultist ignorance on the part of their target; colonialists/imperialists have a bad tendency to underestimate other cultures.

It’s also hard to separate out racism/ultra-nationalism from these affairs. The US intelligence community has a particularly bad history of assuming that ethnicity plays a high role in espionage. That’s why they accuse someone like Wen Ho Lee of being a Chinese spy [wik] – well, he’s not a white American and he worked at one of the national nuclear research agencies – meanwhile not catching on to the fact that the worst traitors in the intelligence community have all been white Americans with poor financial discipline (Ames, Walker, Hanssen, Boyce, Lee) The British intelligence services have been similarly self-blinded, but along class lines (Philby and the Oxford spies) – “the right kind of people don’t do that stuff.” Except they do.

Senior intelligence officers understand that there are lies; they trade in lies. What they look for is multiple sources that align and tell a story that’s consistent. When the US Office of Personnel Management’s computer systems were breached, that leaked a tremendous amount of information about who, at what agencies, had what job code and what clearance levels. The story the US propaganda arm put out in the media were that it was Chinese spies (probably was!) and that the breach wasn’t too bad because only a relatively small amount of information about classified work was contained in the records. Meanwhile, I know spooks that were experiencing night-sweats and sleepless nights because they knew that the OPM database would serve to confirm/deny a tremendous amount of facts about the org chart of the intelligence community (who was a GS-13, and what department they worked for) as well as budget (if you total the staffing of a certain department you can learn a great deal) – all these little puzzle pieces click into place to give the full picture. No good intelligence officer simply unrolls a picture that they are given, and accepts it at face value.

The whole affair smacks of the FBI’s way of being successful against terrorists: find marginal people you can dupe into saying the wrong thing, then arrest them. It doesn’t actually work against the really dangerous people but it sure boosts your score.

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The high-speed system that allows CIA agents to send/receive messages worldwide, appearing to be from other places; I can confirm that it exists.

The Soviets got a tremendous amount of information about US spy satellite capabilities from Christopher Boyce. [wik] It would not have been enough that someone could run out and build a copy of a US spy satellite; but it would be tremendously interesting information to an engineer who was building a Soviet spy satellite. Real engineers compare their work with others, in order to learn; they are not just cargo cultists who try to implement the form, but not the substance, of other engineers’ work. (With respect to the cargo cultists of New Guinea: I am not mocking them. They were doing engineering, there was just too large a technological gap for them to leap. But they’re as smart as other humans; given the base-level technological knowledge of another engineer of the 1940s they’d have been able to understand it just fine.)

Re-cast the title to read: “CIA gives nearly complete nuclear weapons engineering plans to Iran.” It’s crazy that Sterling went to jail for telling Risen about that, when the people who gave secret nuclear weapons plans to Iran are walking around free in the CIA headquarters.


  1. cartomancer says

    Philby was a member of the CAMBRIDGE spy ring. Not Oxford. Oxford has far high ethical standards, and Oxford men would never think to stoop so low as such clandestine backstabbing. our modus operandi is to stab people in the front in broad daylight and tell them it’s their own fault.

  2. says

    Philby was a member of the CAMBRIDGE spy ring. Not Oxford. Oxford has far high ethical standards, and Oxford men would never think to stoop so low as such clandestine backstabbing. our modus operandi is to stab people in the front in broad daylight and tell them it’s their own fault.

    Arrrrgh! Damn, I need to stop relying on my memory; it is beginning to fail.

    I haven’t read up on Philby/Burgess/et al since the early 90s, but I still think I have that information at my fingertips. The me that was me a decade ago would have simply been right. I hope this is not alzheimers or something starting to kick in (I checked with my dad last year and he says that our memories start to get bumpy in our 50s and its’ downhill from there) (great!)

    our modus operandi is to stab people in the front in broad daylight and tell them it’s their own fault.

    That’s so classist. Proper capitalists stab people in the front and charge them for “time and materials.” I guess you Oxfordians don’t need money or something?

  3. ShowMetheData says

    RE: FBI’s way of being successful against terrorists

    I’m kinda torn about what to call these low-level marginal ‘Terrorists’

    Build-a-Berrorist (scans verbally rather than on the page)

  4. sonofrojblake says

    (“an explosion big enough you could see it from a satellite”)

    So about what, three feet across?

  5. says

    So about what, three feet across?

    Yuge! Biggest explosion ever! It made an enoki mushroom cloud!

    The Farewell Dossier was in the 70s, and the accident was in 1989:

    At 1:15 local time, two passenger trains of the Kuybyshev Railway carrying vacationers to and from Novosibirsk and a resort in Adler on the Black Sea exploded, 11 kilometres (6.8 miles) from the city of Asha, Chelyabinsk Oblast.[3] A faulty gas pipeline 900 metres (3,000 feet) away had unknowingly leaked natural gas liquids (mainly propane and butane), and special weather conditions allowed the gas to accumulate across the lowlands, creating a flammable cloud along part of the Kuybyshev Railway. The explosion occurred after wheel sparks from the two passenger trains heading in opposite directions ignited the flammable cloud. Estimates of the size of the explosion have ranged from 250–300 tons of TNT equivalent to up to 10,000 tons of TNT equivalent.[4][1] Of the victims, 181 of them were children, and many survivors having received severe burns and brain injuries.

    A propane/butane fuel/air explosion. Damn.

    So, the CIA is taking credit for that? Can you imagine the shitfit the US would have if someone did something like that to a trainload of Americans? Nyuk nyuk nyuk fooled them commies!

  6. komarov says

    Well, at least all this leaking solves the nuclear question: Henceforth everyone shall be allowed to build nukes (treaty or not), provided it says “Made in America” on the side. Doesn’t matter if the plans were purchased, stolen or leaked, because we can’t tell for sure anyway. (I wouldn’t put it an agency like the CIA or FBI to fake receipts after having something like that stolen)

    It’s crazy that Sterling went to jail for telling Risen about that, when the people who gave secret nuclear weapons plans to Iran are walking around free in the CIA headquarters.

    Perhaps every nation’s worst enemy is its own secret service. Someone ought to remind the Republicans of all that “small government” talk and gently point out the CIA. Look, money’s being spent, other nations benefit (can’ t have that so bye, international aid) and we can’t even tell what it’s being spent on. Or was that the Pentagon… hmm.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    … her latest download. … she sent a secret data flow …

    Gotta wonder about a supposedly tech-savvy reporter who screws up whether a -load is up- or down-…

  8. says

    Perhaps every nation’s worst enemy is its own secret service. Someone ought to remind the Republicans of all that “small government” talk and gently point out the CIA.

    As I pointed out [stderr] I’m with Spinoza: secret diplomacy results in the destruction of the state. In the case of a democracy like the US is alleged to be, it is profoundly anti-democratic to have secret police making their own foreign policy without the people having any ability to direct it.

  9. cvoinescu says

    Interestingly, that quotation is mangled in the same way all over the Internet. Of course it should say “statesmen”. A few Google Books sources agree it actually begins “But statesmen, on the other hand, are suspected…”.

    What’s more, I would argue that it’s less appropriate than it seems. My reading of the text is that it’s actually praise, because “statesmen” are realists, in contrast with philosophers and theorists, who make bad politicians because they have an idealized view of people and their vices. The paragraph just before that quote says philosophers view of human nature is all but made up, and ends like this: “Accordingly, as in all sciences, which have a useful application, so especially in that of politics, theory is supposed to be at variance with practice; and no men are esteemed less fit to direct public affairs than theorists or philosophers”. The text following the quotation notes that “statesmen” are often maligned for their worldly understanding of people, especially by religious authorities, but they’re the better politicians (and political analysts) for it.

    Having made that point, Spinoza proceeds to assure us that, in his discussion of human nature, he will attempt to understand rather than judge human actions, by taking a neutral view, carefully supported by facts and practice rather than theory and ideals.