Despite an Iranian claim that scientist Shahram Amiri was a double agent who gave Iran an “intelligence victory” over the CIA, US officials continue to maintain the line that Amiri had been a valuable long-term US intelligence asset who had provided valuable intelligence on the Iranian nuclear program before he returned to Iran out of concern for the family he had left behind.
A change of heart by a defector is far from unknown in the history of US espionage, but some former intelligence officials wonder if the CIA’s failure to exercise normal caution in its handling of Amiri could have led them to fall for a “dangle” — someone who offers to spy on his own government but who is actually working for that government’s intelligence service.
rsilogo Exclusive: Eager for new Curveball, CIA may have been duped by Iranian double agentFormer CIA official Philip Giraldi, who was briefed on the case last week by CIA officials with direct knowledge of it, said those who had been responsible for handling Amiri still did not regard him as a double agent. But he said an investigation had been opened by the CIA on the procedures that had been used in the case, indicating a serious concern that Amiri might have been deceiving the agency all along.
The Sunday Telegraph reported last week that a former CIA operative said the CIA was indeed investigating whether Amiri had been a double agent. The Washington Post’s Greg Miller quoted a “former high-ranking CIA official” as saying, “They have to go over everything he did provide and put a big caveat on it.”
The report by Fars News Agency Wednesday cited an unidentified source as saying that Iranian intelligence had established contact with Amiri in “early 2010,” while he was in the United States supposedly sequestered by the CIA. That claim, if true, would place the start of direct contact between Amiri and Iranian intelligence months before an alleged phone call by Amiri to his family that US officials have claimed caused him to start thinking about returning to Iran.
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The Iranian source said that Amiri was “managed and guided” by Iranian intelligence officials in his debriefings with the CIA and described the information he provided as “valuable details from inside the CIA.”
Although those statements appeared to apply to the period of Amiri’s stay in the United States, another statement suggested a longer-term relationship between Iranian intelligence and Amiri. “This was an intelligence battle between the CIA and us that was designed and managed by Iran,” the source was quoted as saying.
US officials have dismissed the Iranian claim as propaganda and derided the kind of information Amiri supposedly obtained from his contact with the CIA as trivial compared with the information he had provided on the Iranian nuclear program. But Rick Francona, a former CIA intelligence operations officer, said Amiri could have taken valuable intelligence on his debriefings with the CIA back to Iran withi him. “He knows what we don’t know,” said Francona.
The operational and political context in which Amiri approached the United States and offered his services may have helped create an opening for an Iranian deception operation. Iran has long been one of the hardest places in the world for the United States to operate an intelligence network. “The Iranians were always a very tough target for us,” said Francona, who has worked on the problem of distinguishing real defectors from frauds at the CIA, which arises in part because of the absence of a US embassy in Iran.
That made the CIA dependent on recruitment and “walk-ins” outside Iran. Amiri was a “walk-in” who appeared in Turkey to volunteer to work for US intelligence, according to Giraldi’s CIA sources. Turkey has been the main location for Iranian walk-ins, according to Charles S. Faddis, a 20-year veteran of CIA operations until his retirement in 2008, who conducted operations in both the Middle East and southwest Asia.
Turkey is also a place where Iran has a very active intelligence presence, according to Francona, and the Iranians “have tended to dangle targets in Turkey” in the past.
Faddis told me that Turkey would have been the right place for Iranian intelligence to offer a “dangle” to US intelligence, because the US had recruited people there before. “If this guy was walked in by the Iranians they would do it in a place that smells correct to us,” said Faddis.
No US intelligence source has indicated precisely when Amiri volunteered to work for US intelligence, but he has been identified as a source for the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, indicating that he began reporting at least as early as 2007. In 2005, the Bush administration launched a major program to weaken and sabotage the Iranian nuclear program, which included a project codenamed “Brain Drain” aimed at getting nuclear scientists and others involved in the program to defect.
That meant that the CIA was inclined to put great value on Amiri, even though he admitted to having no direct knowledge of the nuclear program, according to Giraldi. “The CIA saw Amiri as someone who could help them in recruiting other scientists,” said Patrick Lang, a former DIA intelligence officer for the Middle East.
There had also been pressure on the agency from the Bush administration to come up with more intelligence on what senior officials believed was a covert Iranian nuclear weapons program, according to a report by the Washington Post’s Dafna Linzer in February 2006.
“The CIA dearly wanted to have a guy play the role of ‘Curveball’ on Iran,” a former intelligence official told me. He was referring to the Iraqi agent of the German intelligence whose tale of mobile bio-weapons labs had been seized upon by the Bush administration as the “smoking gun” evidence of Saddam’s WMD ambitions.
The agency also felt that it had not kept pace with the Israelis, Germans, French and British in recruiting new agents inside Iran, according to one intelligence community insider familiar with the issue. “The feeling was growing in the CIA that we were deeply in debt to other intelligence agencies in terms of agents in Iran,” he said.
The agency had very little information about Amiri when they established a relationship with him, according to Giraldi. “He was never vetted carefully,” he said. The only thing the agency knew was that he had a job that was vaguely connected to the nuclear issue at Malek Ashtar University in Tehran.
But that university had been labeled by the National Council of Resistance in Iran, the political arm of the anti-regime terrorist group Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), as a front for nuclear weapons work by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The NCRI and MEK have had close relations with Israeli intelligence, which has promoted many of the same specific charges about alleged Iranian covert nuclear weapons work. Israeli insistence that the university was a key target may have been yet another source of pressure on the CIA to take on a scientist affiliated with it.
The result of those pressures was laxer procedures in dealing with Shahram Amiri than was the norm for the agency. “He was never well vetted,” said Giraldi flatly, reflecting what his sources in the agency now concede.
A key danger signal for a double agent is that he offers some intelligence that the United States is known to want badly. But Amiri didn’t appear to fit that description. Giraldi’s CIA contacts say he didn’t claim to have direct knowledge of the Iranian nuclear program. “He didn’t really have original information,” said Giraldi.
Instead Amiri claimed to have acquaintances in the nuclear program from whom he picked up “scuttlebutt”, according to Giraldi. The very modesty of Amiri’s claims, therefore, made him appear to be sincere.
A major question mark about the Amiri case surrounds his “defection” to the United States after some unidentified period during which he was reporting to a US case officer, according to Giraldi. US officials have been quoted as saying that there were indications that he was in danger of being discovered and that the agency urged him to leave Iran for his own safety.
The normal procedure under those circumstances would be to bring Amiri’s wife and young son out, so that he would not be vulnerable to government pressures inherent in their remaining behind. But US officials have told reporters that Amiri chose to leave his family behind when he left Iran, using a Hajj in Saudi Arabia as the excuse. That should have been a danger signal about Amiri, according to Francona. “That’s the first thing defectors ask for – get my family out. That’s a big red flag.”
Faddis said it would have been “exceedingly unusual, in my experience bringing people out,” to have left the rest of the family in Iran. The only circumstances in which the agency would bring out an agent without his family, Faddis said, is as a “last resort – because it’s going to cause massive problems.”
An intelligence operations manager would only deviate from that practice “if central national security interests are at stake,” said Faddis.
That issue is central to the Amiri case, because it bears on whether the US story that Amiri was worried about threats to his family, which was leaked to the news media in the wake of Amiri’s return to Iran, is credible.
Faddis said he views the Amiri case in the light of his own experience that defectors typically have “a lot of personal problems,” which he believes are usually related to their defection. He thinks Amiri was a genuine defector, but that his handlers “screwed up the defection”.
Former CIA operative Francona isn’t so sure. “If I could get a set of facts, I could make a judgment,” he told me. “But I can’t tell who is telling the truth. I’d have to see the whole case file.”
Another former intelligence official, who asked not to be identified, said he doesn’t buy the CIA’s story that Amiri returned to Iran because he was concerned about his family. If Amiri were not already working for Iranian intelligence, he observed, he would have been well aware of his fate upon return, regardless of any personal problems.
Larry Johnson, a former CIA and State Department counter-terrorism official, commented on his blog “No Quarter” last week, “At this point, it looks like [Amiri] was a dangle that CIA swallowed hook, line and sinker.” Johnson pointed to the anomaly that Iranian authorities had allowed Amiri to travel alone to Saudi Arabia.
US officials defending the CIA’s handling of the case have cited alleged indications of Iranian suspicions of Amiri as the reason for getting Amiri to leave Iran for the United States. Those officials have not indicated, however, whether the indications were obtained independently of Amiri or not.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.