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The trouble with defectors

Shahram Amiri, the Iranian nuclear scientist with a changeable heart, illustrates a truth about the spy business: Defectors are all too human.

They may come in from the cold bringing valuable intelligence, as Amiri did more than a year ago with information from inside the Iranian nuclear program. But they also may get lonely, feel unappreciated in their new surroundings and sometimes, as appears to have happened with Amiri, decide to pack their bags and return home.

Amiri’s return to Tehran will be a propaganda coup for the regime -- not least because his penitent appearances on Iranian state television, now and in the future, are likely to deter other Iranian scientists who might have considered jumping ship.

Amiri made contact with the CIA well before his reported defection during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in June 2009. It’s possible that he was a “virtual walk-in,” making initial contact through the Internet. (I wrote a spy novel last year with that plot, but it may actually have happened in real life.)

One of the mysteries about Amiri is why he decided to defect without his young wife and child, leaving them -- and himself -- vulnerable to Iranian pressure. The CIA often tries to arrange for the escape of a defector’s family, to avoid just this sort of squeeze.

“The choice to come to this country, and who he brought with him, were his,” said a U.S. official who is familiar with the details of Amiri’s case.

I’m told that he traveled by taxi to the Iranian Interests Section in Washington to “re-defect” on Monday -- which makes clear that he wasn’t kidnapped by the Iranians, or restrained by the CIA. He just wanted to go home.

You can watch his anguish about defection in a series of videos on YouTube. The first video posted features a blurry image of him in a black T-shirt telling people that he had been “abducted in a third country,” brought to America and tortured by the CIA. The next day You Tube had a video of a nattier Amiri, in front of a chess set and a globe in what looks like a set for "Masterpiece Theater," talking about how he was in America “of my own volition” studying at a university.

Two other videos of Amiri are online, also seemingly shot for an Iranian audience. At the end of one, I’m told, there’s a voice off screen saying in Farsi, “That was good.”

There’s also YouTube footage of a woman described as Amiri’s wife, wearing a checked headscarf and obviously eager for her husband’s return. One can only guess at the emotions -- loneliness, guilt, anxiety -- swirling through Amiri’s mind over the past few months as he received messages from home.

A similar change of heart occurred in the case of a Soviet defector named Vitaly Yurchenko. He defected to the CIA in 1985 and provided valuable information about several Soviet “moles” inside U.S. intelligence, including Ronald Pelton and Edward Lee Howard. But his personal life in America quickly became a shambles, and five months after he arrived he announced that he was re-defecting to the motherland. Some CIA officers who worked with him remain convinced that both actions were sincere -- the initial defection and the subsequent decision to return home.

The CIA has struggled for decades with how to handle defectors better so that they are happy in a strange new land. The agency periodically tries to improve its tradecraft in working with these skittish guests. But defectors are trouble. They are like small boats in a heavy sea, not sure which way is home.

By David Ignatius  | July 13, 2010; 7:34 PM ET
Categories:  Ignatius  | Tags:  David Ignatius  
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There are those, myself included, who believe Yurchecnko's defection was staged.

Amazingly, upon his return to the Soviet Union he eas not executed as was every legitimate defector before him.

No, Yurchecnko came and threw out some bones for any FBI and CIA bloodhounds that might be out there, to try and lead them away from the wo most important moles the Soviet Union ever had inside the USA. Robert Hannsen and Aldrich Ames.

Posted by: john_bruckner | July 14, 2010 9:07 AM | Report abuse

If we had a real spy service in this country when the man's intentions became "unstable" he would, sadly, have become the victim of a random street crime, never to waiver again in his loyalties.

Posted by: Roytex | July 14, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

Our government has its hands full fighting the real enemy, Southern White bigots like Virgil Goode, the Weavers at Ruby Ridge, and just white people in general.

But with stalwart leaders like Obama, Ayers, Pelosi, the future of the state is assured. They are bringing here a new people not born in this nation. They are the real Americans. Bigotry will be finally defeated and Diversity will reign forever.

Posted by: OldAtlantic | July 14, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Where was 'free american media' when Apartheid israel hijacked/killed civilians on freedom flotilla imagine what would 'free american media' do if iran attacked and killed 10 unarmed civilians
on a ship sailing international waters. Now do you still think american media is free?

Posted by: MumboJumboo | July 14, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Free american media is all propaganda and NO true journalism;
1)apartheid israel is "the only democracy in the middle east"
2)Apartheid wall is a "security fence"
3)jewish only colonies built on palestinian lands are "settelments"
4)Dictatorships of the middle east like saudi, kuwait, egypt are "moderate governments"
5)"WMDs" of iraq
6)Americans have no idea who rachel corrie is

Posted by: MumboJumboo | July 14, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Wow ! I thought you were talking about Arlene Specter.

Posted by: richard36 | July 14, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

How does Mr Ignatius know for sure that this guy was a defector not an not a victim of CIA's kidnapping?

This is yet another proof of how our "journalists" have become an instrument of propaganda , whether it's WMD or alleged CIA abductions.

Posted by: JasonF1 | July 14, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

Sounds like you've become the apologist-in-chief, Mr. Ignatius.

Posted by: silencedogoodreturns | July 14, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

the Iranian story is that Amiri was kidnapped by the CIA. Why do you assume their version is false and that the CIA is telling the truth?

Also, Amiri claims now that he was tortured and held against his will. His information apparently led to the U.S. discovering the secret facility in Qom and the recent round of sanctions against Iran. Perhaps, they are letting him go because he has served his value to us and they (the CIA) no longer need him.

Posted by: vk5u | July 14, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

It is very strange that his family stayed in Iran. That by itself lends credence to the claims that he was kidnapped, and did not defect.

It is suspicious that he is now returning. Perhaps Iran does not, after all, have a nuclear weapons program.

Posted by: AMviennaVA | July 14, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

How does Mr Ignatius know for sure that this guy was a defector not an not a victim of CIA's kidnapping?

This is yet another proof of how our "journalists" have become an instrument of propaganda , whether it's WMD or alleged CIA abductions. - Posted by: JasonF1

You have captured what I was about to say, so I'll just quote you here. Well said.

Posted by: ashrink | July 14, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

The official story we've been given is full of holes.

Little of it makes any sense.

If it is true Amiri is a dead-man walking.

My gut says it was an Iranian charade designed to screw up US intel - not a hard thing to do apparently!

Posted by: Hazmat77 | July 15, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

MumboJumboo ... apt self-description.

Even the Turks have come to realize that the initial Arab version they swallowed of the incident is a crock of shiite!

Posted by: Hazmat77 | July 15, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

vk5u ... if Amiri was not truly a defector and was part of an Iranian plot, he'd have had to give up some legitimate information to gain credibility.

Perhaps he did. But frankly, no matter what we read now, chances are good that we'll not find out the truth for many years.

Posted by: Hazmat77 | July 15, 2010 11:07 AM | Report abuse

Welcome to the looking glass Mr Ignatius you may recognise it.

The problem is because Cheney, Bush and Dumsfeld admitted America did torture and kidnap people, and even got caught doing so at Abu Ghraib, Gitmo and in the Italian job, it is now almost impossible for the US to say it is NOT kidnapping torturing, murdering and spying on it citizens like the KGB.

The GOP never understood the concept of plausible deniability.

So let us analyse the possibilities:

Case 1)
He was a defector and he got recaptured by Iranian agents.
The US Security Services were beaten and cannot protect defectors in the country; with all the baggage that involves.

*) Because the US cannot hide behind plausible deniability, he now provides a the perfect stick to beat the US for being the evil empire and because of the stupidity of the Cheney, Bush and Dumsfeld, now the mud sticks.

Case 2)
He was a defector and he got blackmailed into returning by Iranian agents.
The US Security Services failed to cushion their asset from such attacks and were beaten and cannot protect defectors in the country; with all the baggage that involves.

Oh and *) again

Case 3)
He was a defector and has had second thoughts because he was not properly handled.
The all the intel he supplied is probably now known to Iran and they can use the information to track US agents and assets who would have been sent to investigate his claims; with all the damage that involves.

Oh and *) again

Case 4)
He was a defector who did it for the money and now wants to get some more by turning back to Iran, or he wants spend it with his family.
The US Security Services were fooled and were beaten and all the intel he supplied is probably made up; with all the damage that involves.

Oh and *) again

Case 5)
He was a double agent pretending to defect.
The US Security Services were fooled. He will have gathered complex intel on US Security operations. All the intel he supplied is suspect some will be true as bait to hooks for further more frightening traps; telling truth from falsehood or worse yet bait will be impossible; masses of US security service time, effort and money has been wasted and the lives of US agents and assets put at risk.

Oh and *) again

Case 6)
He was kidnapped.
All the info he gave is questionable

Oh and *) again

Why couldn't Cheney keep his big trap shut?

Posted by: walker1 | July 15, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

It looks like CIA and Washington Post are condemning Mr. Amiri to death by Iranian hands. Even if he was really defecting leaving his wife and kid behind, and if that is what messed up the operation, who is the professional here. Why CIA did not foresee and remedy such an obvious flaw? Mr. Ignatius thinks CIA had plenty of time to do it right since Amiri contacted them a year before defection. I think not. Clearly if he was defecting on his own, he wouldn’t be offered $5 mil to spill out his guts; information is the price of defection. And if money was to be offered in Saudi Arabia, it would have to be hard cash not a lifetime benefit package. By leaking the payoff money, CIA people have condemned Mr. Amiri to a terrible fate while incriminating themselves in a crime. Mr. Ignatius in his usual role as a CIA outlet is not doing anybody a favor in this lose-lose situation. I expect more from the CIA than acting like they are in a high school feud with Mr. Amiri. Just think about all future information sources you just lost.

Posted by: Shiveh | July 15, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Hi Shiveh

Welcome to the looking glass :-D

CIA sources say they gave him 5 million dollars.

But it may just be a CIA trick to poison the well.

It is a looking glass war and what is said is rarely the truth.

Posted by: walker1 | July 15, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Do you buy everything you are told by the CIA or "US officials familiar with details" - hook, line, and sinker?

When approached by these cloak & dagger folks, and offered "access", do you check your skepticism at the door and go in wanting, willing, and waiting to believe everything they say?

Posted by: ashrink | July 15, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

This whole story reeks of lies on the part of the CIA, the Defector and Iran.

He came willingly and was paid 5 million dollars but decides to give up his 5 million and go home to the Govrnment that will probably take that 5 million and put him in prison unless he was doing the Governments business while pretending otherwise to the CIA.

He was kidnapped, paid for his trouble, then they let him go home in which case he must get is Government to believe his story and he most likely still loses the 5 million if he was paid that at all.

Iran threatened to kill his family if he did not return in which case he returns and they kill just him or all his family.

The CIA kidnapped him and really didn't get much information or they got enough and just let him go.

Who really knows the truth, our journalist here at the Washingtonpost? Can we really handle the truth? Does anyone really care about the truth other than the Iranian government and his family?

If he goes home after being paid 5 million dollars he pretty much is saying he doesn't care about the money because he isn't going to get to keep it. This points to him being kidnapped against his will because he is not interested in the 5 million enough to stay in the US and be a free man while his family is under the watchful eye of Iranian authorities. He would rather be reunited with his family no matter the consequences.....

I say he was kidnapped, paid for his trouble and then let go. Hope it was worth it, really.

Posted by: rannrann | July 15, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Really OldAtlantic? From what I've seen and read, the Weavers at Ruby Ridge were actually framed by the local police, and murdered by the FBI.

Not surprising considering the FBI also ignored the corruption and collusion of agents with the Winter Hill mob, allowed the murder of Roger Wheeler, and then spent years covering up the crime.

Posted by: mhoust | July 15, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

As someone who supported the disastrous Iraq war Mr Ignatius, your judgment is very suspect. So why should one believe any of your opinions?

Posted by: qualquan | July 15, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

As someone who supported the disastrous Iraq war Mr Ignatius, your judgment is very suspect. So why should one believe any of your opinions?

Posted by: qualquan | July 15, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Stop the spin and the propaganda, David. No sooner had Amiri landed that the agents of American "covert operations" struck in Zahedan, killing more than 20 Iranian worshippers! America's military might and its perfidy grow ever more irresistible and monstrous, even if the unquestionable overall decline of America has been publicly ackowledged by yet another pundit, Robert McCartney, writing in this same newspaper on July 4 (

Posted by: FUZZYTRUTHSEEKER | July 15, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

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