Alexandria: Former national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told jurors she was stunned to learn that a classified mission to thwart Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions had been leaked to the news media.
That leak is now the subject of a criminal trial in federal court. Prosecutors believe ex-CIA case officer Jeffrey Sterling illegally disclosed details of the program to New York Times journalist James Risen because he was bitter about his treatment at the agency.
In testimony, Rice told jurors that the program was one of the most closely held operations during her tenure as national security adviser in the first term of George W Bush's administration.
The plan called for using a Russian CIA asset nicknamed "Merlin" to funnel deliberately flawed nuclear blueprints to the Iranians. Rice said the classified operation "was one of the only levers we had to try to disrupt Iran's nuclear program."
Sterling denies leaking any information to Risen. Defense lawyers say the leak could have come from anywhere and that Sterling has faced unfair suspicion because he sued the CIA for racial discrimination.
In earlier testimony yesterday, an unidentified CIA manager testified under cross-examination that more than 90 people knew about the covert mission.
Prosecutors opted not to force Risen to testify about his sources after the reporter made clear he wouldn't divulge sources even under threat of a jail sentence for contempt of court. So they plan to introduce a package of circumstantial evidence to prove Sterling was the source, including evidence of phone calls and emails between the two.
While Rice's testimony helped establish the importance of the classified program in question, her testimony did not implicate Sterling in any way as the leaker.
The program was of such importance, Rice said, that she did something she never had done before: summon a New York Times editor to the White House and ask her not to publish the story.
In the April 2003 meeting, which included then-CIA director George Tenet, Times editor Jill Abramson and Risen, Rice said she warned the paper that lives could be at risk if the story was published.
"I certainly understand the significance of the White House asking the New York Times not to run a story. I fully respect the role of the press," Rice said. "But I needed in this case to make sure that the New York Times understood the impact of what they were about to do."