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.
| July 13, 2010; 7:34 PM ET
Categories: Ignatius | Tags: David Ignatius
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