Report — From the January 2017 issue

The Trouble with Defectors

What informants taught an intelligence officer

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“Do you know why you have come here, mother?” the man asked, reaching out for a hug. He was seated in a small room of a military barracks in Tehran, surrounded by intelligence-service agents. His mother, who had been invited by the Iranian government, was hopeful that he would be pardoned and released into the custody of his family. “I have come to see you,” she said. The man shook his head. “You have come to say goodbye.” A day or so later, his body was sent to his parents, with rope marks from his execution visible around his neck. His death was announced on August 7 by the Iranian judiciary: “Shahram Amiri was hanged for revealing the country’s top secrets to the enemy.”

Illustrations by Simon Pemberton

Illustrations by Simon Pemberton

Amiri, a thirty-eight-year-old physicist, had become mixed up in the most vexing nonproliferation dispute of our era. For decades, the United States has accused Tehran of pursuing nuclear weapons, a charge that the regime has consistently denied. The Americans have offered only circumstantial evidence, some of it of questionable provenance, while the Iranians have simply been unable to prove their guiltlessness to the satisfaction of the West. Even the agreement that was made in July 2015, which stipulated that Iran limit aspects of its enrichment program and consent to stringent inspections, has done little to quash speculation about its nuclear ambitions.

The United States has been frustrated by the dearth of actionable information coming out of Iran for as long as its spies have trained their sights on the Islamic Republic; one former official called it “the hardest intelligence target there is.” In 1979, having been taken completely off guard by the success of the Islamic Revolution, the CIA had no resources in place to recruit a new pool of informants. During the decade that followed, the agency gradually rebuilt a modest network inside Iran, but it was blown by sloppy tradecraft. More than thirty Iranian contacts were rounded up and executed.

By the late 1990s, the CIA began to encourage Iranians working in nuclear research to defect. As many as five were lured away; not one of them proved to be valuable. This was also the program that later brought Shahram Amiri to the attention of the agency. Agents first approached him during a visit to Frankfurt, Germany, in 2007, and again during a 2009 trip to Vienna. During this time, the CIA claims, Amiri was providing insights into Iran’s nuclear program, especially with regard to a hidden enrichment facility outside the city of Qom, where he occasionally worked. It was Amiri’s disclosures, at least in part, that led the CIA to conclude, in a 2010 National Intelligence Estimate, that Tehran had shut down its nuclear-weapons program in 2003.

Amiri formally defected in 2009, probably to escape being arrested as a spy. He was extensively debriefed by the CIA, and the information he provided underpinned Barack Obama’s denouncement of the Qom facility during that September’s G20 meeting. As defectors go, he seemed perfect: well educated, well spoken, and knowledgeable about a program that the CIA had been trying to crack for decades.

A year later, however, the relationship suddenly derailed. Amiri defected back to Iran, making bizarre claims to the media about having been kidnapped by the Americans. The CIA, which had treated him as a legitimate defector (going so far as to award him $5 million), became concerned that its star source had been a double agent. The CIA appears to have been so desperate to learn what he knew that the normal checks and balances were skirted, or even ignored. If Amiri had been working for Tehran, then everything — including the CIA’s estimate of Iran’s nuclear capability and the agency’s murky relationship with the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) — had been exposed to Iranian intelligence. That would make the Amiri debacle one of the greatest blows to American spycraft in modern times.

Amiri returned to Iran in July 2010 and was initially feted as a hero. But he soon found himself in deep trouble. Within months, he was arrested and charged with treason. Despite Iranian media reports that Amiri was a double agent, interrogators there soon reached a different conclusion: he had been a willing asset of the CIA. “The Amiri case,” Paul Pillar, a former CIA officer, has observed, “seems to be a story out of the wilderness of mirrors department.”

More than five years passed before Amiri was put to death. While the evolution of his loyalties remains unknown, American intelligence officers have to assume that the CIA’s knowledge and strategy were compromised. And the fact that Amiri’s family is still alive means that he likely cut a deal. The trouble with defectors is that if they seem too good to be true, they probably are.

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is the author of Deal of the Century: How Iran Blocked the West’s Road to War, which will be published in March by Clarity Press.

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