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The Spy Who Returned to the Cold

Shahram Amiri was not kidnapped, he defected from Iran. Now, owing to the intelligence community’s negligence, he has gone back. This is the real story.

By Philip Giraldi

For the first time since the cold war, the Central Intelligence Agency is conducting a high-level examination of how it recruits and runs its agents, referred to as tradecraft. The examination is taking place at the same time as a broader U.S. intelligence community damage-assessment related to the July 14th re-defection of Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri, whose information was used in a number of intelligence reports that went to the White House and other consumers. Amiri, who had no access to the actual Iranian nuclear program, was considered a low-level source who only was able to recount conversations with other scientists suggesting that there was no nuclear-weapons program, information that has been confirmed by other sources.

The CIA review will look into the way in which Amiri was acquired and handled as a source. In its eagerness to obtain an Iranian nuclear scientist, the CIA did not consider carefully enough the possible consequences of a staged defection in which key family members were left behind. Agency handlers quite simply failed to learn enough about Amiri and his personal circumstances prior to arranging his defection, leading to the sorry spectacle of his very public re-defection. In CIA training there was always an admonition against “falling in love” with one’s agent, a term meant to convey that getting too close emotionally to a source would mean developing a blind spot when he or she starts to perform poorly. In this case, senior Agency managers believe that the case officers handling Amiri were so detached that they made no effort to learn anything about him.


The recklessness is reminiscent of the lead-up to the December 2009 killing of seven CIA officers at Khost, Afghanistan by a Jordanian double agent, a major setback that was attributable a series of security failures driven by the desire to obtain an agent with access to al-Qaeda at any cost.

The CIA inquiry will also look at the acquisition of reporting sources and targeting information for drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which Agency insiders concede are often poorly directed, resulting in the deaths of many more civilians than militants. The poor targeting has been attributed to haphazard acquisition of Pakistani and Afghan so-called agents, many of whom are engaged in personal vendettas or are only working for the money and are fabricating information.

A significant number of these agents are provided by ostensibly friendly intelligence services, including Pakistan’s ISI, which has been accused of working both sides in the Afghan conflict. As CIA has few officers able to speak the local languages, such dependency is not surprising, but it has meant that case officers have relatively little substantive contact with many of the agents they are running.

As for the Iranian scientist Amiri, contrary to media reports suggesting that he was kidnapped, he was a walk-in volunteer — initially debriefed at the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul — who became a CIA intelligence source, communicating electronically with his case officer in Washington. His defection was arranged by Washington due to concerns that he might be under scrutiny by the Iranian authorities, who were increasing security in response to aggressive attempts by CIA to contact Iranians working in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. The CIA is convinced that Amiri was a legitimate defector who provided accurate though extremely limited information on steps possibly being taken by the Iranians to conceal certain aspects of their nuclear research, as well as the largely anecdotal evidence that a weapons program does not currently exist.

Amiri was being resettled with a new identity when he heard through the local diaspora Iranian grapevine that his wife and child were in protective custody in Iran and were in danger — a message that was deliberately floated by the Iranian government with the expectation that he would receive it. Because he was a low-level source, he was not under guard by the CIA and was able to travel to Washington, where he contacted the Iranian interests section at the Pakistani Embassy. Relying on intercepted communications, U.S. intelligence has confirmed that the threats against Amiri originated with an Iranian official at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington.

When Amiri had defected while making the Hajj in Saudi Arabia, he abandoned his family in Iran. They were in fact held hostage by the Revolutionary Guards, Amiri’s former employer. Amiri’s decision to go back to Iran was not blocked by U.S. authorities, who believed that he had no more useful intelligence. Flown back to Tehran, he transited through the United Arab Emirates where he acquired an Iranian official as an escort. U.S. intelligence spokesmen took the unusual step of inaccurately praising Amiri’s great value — both to discredit and “burn” him with the Iranians. The $5 million he earned for his spying has been frozen in its account by the Department of the Treasury.

In an attempt to deflect any punishment, Amiri has publicly accepted and endorsed false Iranian claims that he had been kidnapped while in Saudi Arabia. Now he will put on show by Tehran and will likely remain unharmed for the short term, but previous returned defectors have been killed in supposed “accidents” after being milked of their propaganda value.


Philip Giraldi, a former CIA Officer, is the Executive Director of the Council for the National Interest. His “Deep Background” column appears every month exclusively in The American Conservative.

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14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "The Spy Who Returned to the Cold"

#1 Comment By Paulie On July 29, 2010 @ 7:56 am

Philip Giraldi just won’t stop spewing his nonsense about Amiri being a “defector.” I guess he has an agenda and just won’t quit. Here’s a very simple question that Giraldi doesn’t want to answer: why in the world would Amiri “defect” to the United States and leave his family in Iran at the mercy of the Iranian government? This guy is a nuclear scientist so he’s smart enough to have known right from the beginning what would happen to his wife and child if he were to defect and become a traitor.

The argument in Giraldi’s new article doesn’t even make sense. He claims that Amiri chose to return to Iran when “he heard through the local diaspora Iranian grapevine that his wife and child were in protective custody in Iran and were in danger.” What nonsense! If this guy Amiri cared about his family so much he obviously would never have defected in the first place. Amiri had to have known that his family would be threatened. Was Amiri so stupid that he just thought “oh yeah, I’ll just defect to the West and be a traitor and my family here in Iran will be just fine.” Come on people, think. And this leads to another question that Giraldi won’t answer: if Amiri cared about his family so much and wanted to return to Iran because they were “threatened” then why didn’t he just take them with him to the United States? Come on Mr. Giraldi let’s see you answer all of these questions.

Amiri was kidnapped in Saudi Arabia at gunpoint, drugged and then flown into the US. If these claims are such lies then why are the Saudis so silent about it? Why don’t they come out and say publicly that we weren’t involved in the kidnapping of Amiri?

Giraldi you are a bald-faced liar!! And your claims about Amiri are based on 100% lies.

#2 Comment By Philip Giraldi On July 29, 2010 @ 9:17 am

The fact is that many defectors cut themselves off from their homelands but then become seriously homesick and return home even knowing that they will face the consequences. If one is raised in Isfahan and winds up in Tucson being resettled, the culture shock is enormous.

#3 Comment By Paulie On July 29, 2010 @ 10:28 am

Mr. Giraldi, let’s see you answer my above questions please. Was this man so stupid that he decided to defect to the United States without taking his family with him and without even considering the clear consequences such a move would have on them? Obviously, if you are going to defect you have to have a long term plan of permanently settling somewhere else because your defection is an act of treason. So please tell me what Mr. Amiri was thinking when he supposedly “defected” to the USA without his family (which includes a wife and a son).

Your article, for the most part, pretty much repeats what the mainstream press in the USA claims and we all know how honest they are in respect to Iran.

#4 Comment By marko On July 29, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

Wow, “..steps possibly being taken by the Iranians to conceal certain aspects of their nuclear research, as well as the largely anecdotal evidence that a weapons program does not currently exist” sounds pretty darn vague to me. Basically, you’re saying the US made and followed through with an offer to help someone “defect” who had at best very little information to offer on what is increasingly apparent as a political phantasm ordered up and created by the CIA. And this “defector” did this willingly, putting his wife and son in mortal danger, for… what? Don’t add up to me Mr. Giraldi. Best go back to the drawing board, check again with your buds on the inside.. This one don’t wash.

#5 Comment By Anooshirvan On July 29, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

Mr. Giraldi, your article about the Amiri “affair” does not hold water. I read your pieces in AC regularly with some confidence that you know what you’re talking about. Unfortunately this “piece” has left a bad taste in my mouth, because your “explanations” about Amiri’s alleged defection and leaving his family behind and then going back just because he “heard” that his family was in danger read like a canned off-the-shelf disinformation attempt by the “intel community”. That’s all.
Looking forward to reading more serious stuff by you in the future. This one was a dud.

#6 Comment By Daniel McCarthy On July 29, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

Considering that just about everyone knows that the Iranians have very little in the way of a nuclear program, I think Phil’s critics would have to admit that Amiri would have equally little knowledge whether kidnapped or accepted as a defector. The question for those of us outside the intel community is whether it’s more likely that the CIA would successfully kidnap the guy, then let him just walk away once he’s in Washington, D.C., or whether Phil’s account of an agency that entices a defector away, only to lose him because of poor management, is more plausible. The CIA may have a license to kidnap and kill, but it’s also a bureaucracy.

#7 Comment By Neil On July 29, 2010 @ 11:26 pm

Ohhh come on guys.
This has Tradecraft written all over it…

Whether Amiri Defected, or was abducted…he soon found himself between the hammer and the anvil.

He was undoubtably told that if he co-operated, his family would be brought to the West.

Part of his co-operation was to be part of a video presentation
that would demonize Iran as having a robust strategic weapons capability, or were near to having one.

After a period of time Amiri realized that the promises of his family joining him were not forthcoming.
Perhaps he balked at the outright lies his handlers were wanting him to present on the video tapes.

Amiri, being admittedly smarter than the average Joe…played along with his CIA hosts, becoming an uber co-operative source.
…and when they let down their guard, he was off like a shot to the Embassy.

From there we get the video of him looking haggard and stressed(stating he had been abducted), as he would be after having made his major play to get back to his family.

Of course the CIA released a part of the video presentation he had made previously, in which he stated he had defected. Just to burn him…

Even if he does live…he will never work in a position of trust again.

I have no proof, or sources of course…just my imagination pondering the possibilties

#8 Comment By Neil On July 29, 2010 @ 11:44 pm

I would like to add, that I believe Amiri was abducted, just like he said.

Why? Simply because, no man would go back to face almost certain death, to be with his family…and be a traitor to his extended family, clan and country.

It just doesn’t make sense…

For the CIA to say that they offered Amiri 20 million is just typical.
They believe everyone would sell their souls for a chunk of their worthless fiat paper money.
It is laughable…

#9 Comment By David Sketchley On July 30, 2010 @ 4:30 am

Once CIA…..

Giraldi is reporting what the CIA want him to report. It’s obviously known who his contacts are, people he used to work with.

What he doesn’t explain are the 3 videos released while he was in ‘custody’ of the CIA.

#10 Comment By Cass On July 30, 2010 @ 6:31 pm

Now didn’t the CIA cook up the dis-info on Iraq? Slam dunk indeed. And how many “extperts” and ex-spooks exposed the lies?
Whatever, the fibs from the CIA got our uniforma defeating themselves in Iraq and Afghanistn ostensibly by Al Qaeda, never more than 1000 and now a mere 100 wahibis, or so the capo di capi di CIA Don Leone Panettone tells us.

And as Ron Paul tells us all this war mongering has cost us $1 trllion per year which is 10 million jobs lost /year at $100,000 per job (Andy Grove’s estimate). So much for out balance of paymenet,, exports and new value adding jobs. And who benefits? All those who feed at the Pentagon and Security troughs. And of course Israel and its Kim Philbys. Legions of them

#11 Comment By A. G. Phillbin On July 30, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

Has anyone here, either the author or the other commentators, ever considered that Amiri was never a real “defector” in the first place? I don’t buy the “kidnapping” story, and here’s why: why would the CIA kidnap a low level source, with no certainty that his information was real or useful? THAT makes no sense. Forget about any moral qualms — it is logically stupid. It is also logically stupid to assume that they would simply let a kidnapped “defector” walk away, right under their noses.

It makes more sense that he was assigned to play the role of a “defector” by Iranian intelligence, perhaps to plant false information. Why the CIA didn’t check up on his family, I don’t know. But no one would willingly defect from Iran, while leaving his family behind. Anyone who did so would have to be a fake, or an idiot. If you don’t think that Iran is capable of successfully playing the CIA for fools, just remember these two words: Ahmed Chalabi.

#12 Comment By Nate On August 2, 2010 @ 6:04 am

I agree with A. G. The most plausible explanation seems to be a staged defection. I thought that’s where Mr. Giraldi was going with this story at the beginning, so I was a little confused by the end.

#13 Comment By Smith Wordok On August 3, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

The actual reality is that he was neither kidnapped nor defected. He was a double agent who played CIA. If he was really a defector he would have never left his wife and children there and CIA surely must have known he was married and had kids. It is stupid to think all the while when they were talking about nuclear weapons, the issue of identity of the man and his marital status never came up. In united states when you fill a government form, this is one of the first questions asked of you, how come then CIA did not know about it. That is false, they knew. US gov. even was not ready to accept that he was in US, prior to videos and they repeatedly lied that they have never heard of him. His story was made up by Iran and all videos were shot before he left for his mission. He was boobytrapped by Iranians in Saudi Arabia and eventually got picked up (kidnapped) by overzealous CIA who wanted to show meat to their bosses at Langley. Then boobytrapped Amiri exploded once he reached in US. He started feeding CIA as well as learning. Once his time of contract ended, Iranians released the videos and …

#14 Comment By Smith Wordok On August 3, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

One thing more is about the poor damage control CIA did after the Iranians flipped the board. They started going childish, starting to burn their own supposed agent. Blocking his money. Wow, any Iranian who is thinking about defection now would surely have strong second thoughts. A defector is looking for a better place to live, money, security and respect. Looks like these are not what US government is capable of delivering to a potential defector anymore. Further more, lets not forget that as per admission of US government this low low level scientist who was not even involved with nuclear program but had a master’s degree in medical applications of radiation, was given five million dollar top of other facilities like house, probably a car, tickets, etc. Per Amiri’s own admission he was given fifty million dollars. So even if a defector of any substance from any country would now in his right mind defect to USA they would surely have multi-million dollar demands if not multi-billion dollar dreams. CIA has just made the game even more expensive for themselves.