It has been said that retired American spies frequently end up in some rural location that cannot be found on any map, where they can grow orchids or breed Labrador retrievers in peace. Their British counterparts often settle down to write thrillers with plots so involved and characters so conflicted that only a completely masochistic reader can enjoy the twists and turns.
But what of the flotsam and jetsam of spying, the agents who are used and discarded or, in exceptional circumstances, eventually sent out to pasture and resettled in something akin to law enforcement’s witness protection program?
Most intelligence agents, when they are no longer useful, are simply terminated with a hearty slap on the back: “Nice knowing you. Good luck.” But when an agent is so compromised that he can’t go home again, resettlement under the Agency’s Public Law 110 program is sometimes authorized. If the agent is indisputably on the side of the angels, the process is simple: new identity, job, or a business of some sort, and a house in the suburbs.
The Vietnamese general Nguyen Ngoc Loan, head of South Vietnam’s National Police and a CIA informant—who was famously photographed blowing the brains out of a Viet Cong prisoner in 1968—wound up owning a pizzeria in Burke, Virginia. Down the street a number of Saigon’s former top intelligence officers had townhouses, and everyone would get together at the Vietnam Inn in the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia once a week to reminisce over old times, frequently to be joined by friends from the nearby Pentagon and CIA headquarters.
But it all gets trickier when the current good guy was once a really bad guy who participated in targeting and killing Americans. A recent book by Kai Bird on former CIA officer Robert Ames has created quite a stir both in the media and in Congress over the suggestion that Ali Reza Asgari, who reportedly planned the bombing of the United States Embassy in Beirut in 1983 that killed Ames plus the six-strong CIA station as well as ten other Americans, was subsequently picked up as an agency source and now appears to be living in the U.S. with a false identity and a full repatriation package.
Like many good stories, this tale is not completely true. Asgari, a general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, was indeed a key player in the Beirut bombing but later fell under Tehran’s suspicion and feared that he would be summarily executed. So he planned a defection during a trip to Istanbul, as Turkey was then one of the few countries that Iranians could visit without a visa. Turkish intelligence (MIT) and the CIA were tipped off by Asgari, who brought with him hundreds of documents to establish his bona fides. He was whisked away to an interrogation center near Ankara and later to CIA offsites in the United States.
Asgari, who had good access to the Iranian missile and nuclear programs when he defected, was the most valuable source ever to come out of post-revolutionary Iran. He has since been resettled in a comfortable retirement in the United Arab Emirates—which was one of the demands he negotiated with Washington before he defected—so concerned congressmen can go back to arguing about Obamacare.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.