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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