US-Iranian spy war spinning on Amiri
Shahram Amiri may turn out to be more useful to Washington as a re-defector than a defector.
Of course, maybe the CIA is just making the best of a bumble. Whatever the immediate case -- and the ground truth may never be known -- the erstwhile nuclear spy’s return to Tehran has handed the agency a potential propaganda bonanza.
It just doesn’t look that way.
“What we are seeing is an intelligence operation with many layers,” says Elizabeth Bancroft, executive director of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, founded in 1975 to counter criticism of the spy agency. (Full disclosure: I joined to receive its newsletter, but engage in no activities on its behalf.)
“There was the defection of Amiri and his desire to share whatever information he had,” Bancroft said last Thursday, during a Washington Post online discussion, “and then [his] second thoughts, later, and the decision that he now wished to protect his family and relatives.”
“Propaganda,” she added, “is the major feature we are going to see from this point on."
Bancroft might well have said that propaganda was also the CIA’s major concern from the moment it learned of Amiri’s intent to return home. The agency was getting a black eye from the initial reports of Amiri's "escape" from its clutches. Amiri was a double agent all along, the armchair counterspies jibed.
But even if that's true, it's not the end of the story, Bancroft says, especially when it's quite likely that Amiri had long ago been milked of all he knew.
Imagine you're an Iranian scientist hunched over a BBC broadcast about The Washington Post's report that the CIA paid Amiri $5 million for defecting - and then letting him go home when he had second thoughts.
And that was even before Amiri touched down in Iran. He himself would claim later that he was offered $50 million.
How do you think his Iranian minders liked him broadcasting that?
Still think he was a double agent for Tehran?
Now imagine you’re a mere researcher, as Amiri claims he was, eking out a living under the harsh glare of the ayatollahs and religious police. You want a better, freer life for yourself, your wife and your kids.
“For the U.S.,” Bancroft said, “Amiri's claims are almost a fine recruitment tool for others in Iran with valuable knowledge, who might wish to embrace the freedoms here in the West. His claim of [getting] $50 mil certainly adds much to the carrot.”
And then there’s the inner counterintelligence game both sides are playing.
Counterintelligence officials are loathe to reveal their tricks, especially, they say, when doing so might tip Iran to how the CIA might be using Amiri (as if the Iranians needed instruction on deception). But any counterintelligence outfit's most potent weapon is to persuade the opposition that its ranks are riddled with spies.
In the 1960s, the CIA's own head of counterintelligence, James Jesus Angleton, became convinced that the Soviets had infiltrated his agency. By most accounts, his paranoia paralyzed U.S. spy operations against Moscow and ruined many a fine career.
Today, with any luck, the CIA has Iranian counterspies turning Tehran's labs upside down.
We've used counterintelligence in the Middle East to great effect, some agency veterans say. One former official described how, years ago, U.S. counterintelligence agents would contact a member of the Abu Nidal terrorist organization and say, “Hey, Omar is working with us, why don’t you?”
Even if the target ran away, the pitch would work its magic. When the target reported the encounter, “It would set up a round of internal accusations and investigations to find our supposed spies,” the former official said.
Likewise, it’s in the CIA’s interest to paint Shahram Amiri as just one of many long-term American moles, or at the very least, as someone who gave up the names of others in the nuclear program who might be vulnerable to CIA recruitment, after he fled to the West.
Almost certainly, Iranian security is wringing Amiri dry on that score and redoubling its efforts to root out the CIA's supposed spies.
The challenge for both sides, of course, is knowing for sure who is on who’s side. And in the spy vs. spy world's so-called "wilderness of mirrors," you can seldom be sure.
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