July 13, 2010

The "defective" Iranian scientist - curiouser and curiouser

The case of the the Iranian nuclear scientist who allegedly defected to the United States and now wants to return home is an intelligence officer's nightmare - trust me.

Shahram Amiri went to the Iranian interests section at the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington today, seeking repatriation to Iran. This raises a whole series of questions, none of which I have the answers to, but it might be illustrative to speculate.

Defectors wanting to return home is not new - it happens. It happens to "us" (the good guys), and it happens to "them" (the bad guys). Many intelligence officers of my generation will remember Soviet defector - well, we thought he was a defector - Vitaly Yurchenko. Yurchenko, a KGB officer with twenty-five years of service, defected to the United States in 1985 while assigned to the Soviet embassy in Rome. Soon afterwards, he identified two American intelligence officers working for Soviet intelligence. One was convicted and the other fled.

Later that same year, Yurchenko left a dinner at the popular Au Pied de Cochon eatery in Georgetown and returned to the Soviet Union. For the intelligence trivia buffs, the chair in which he was sitting is marked with a plaque, and the drink he was having has been named the "Yurchenko shooter" (half vodka, half Grand Marnier).

Yurchenko's repatriation caused tremors throughout the intelligence community. Had he been the real thing? Was his information real or fabricated? It was made more difficult because he had accurately named two American traitors, both valuable Soviet intelligence assets. If he was on a deception mission, a "dangle" in the vernacular, why were the Soviets willing to compromise two well-placed spies? Ronald Pelton worked at the National Security Agency, and Edward Lee Howard was a CIA case officer. Pelton is in prison until at least 2015; Howard died in Russia under mysterious circumstances (that's spy-speak for "he was murdered by the KGB").

In hindsight, it is believed that Yurchenko was in fact a dangle. His mission was to give the CIA enough to make it seem he was the real thing - Pelton and Howard had pretty much given all they had to tell - in order to protect their prize penetration of the American intelligence community, CIA case officer Aldrich Ames.

Back to Shahram Amiri. Amiri, a nuclear physicist in his early 30s, was a researcher at a university tied to the Iranian military's missile programs. The school's rector has been named by the United Nations as involved in Iran's nuclear program. Given those affiliations and Amiri's expertise, as an intelligence officer, he would have appeared to be of interest to me.

In June 2009, Amiri traveled to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina as part of the hajj, the pilgrimage required of all able-bodied Muslims. The Iranians claim he was kidnapped by American officers while in Saudi Arabia. Would we kidnap an Iranian while on a religious trip to Saudi Arabia? Doubtful. Would we engineer a chance to talk to him? Of course we would - that's what intelligence officers do. It would appear that we did. It also appears he wanted to talk to us.

Of course, the intelligence officer in me also would ask - if Amiri was so valuable or knowledgeable about the Iranian nuclear program, why was he allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia? The quick answer and perhaps the key to the whole repatriation decision - he had to travel without his family. This is common while on the hajj, but it also leaves an "anchor" back in Iran. Hold that thought.

Now it gets strange. In June 2010, a video appeared on a social networking site in which a man claiming to be Amiri says he had escaped from American intelligence agents in Virginia. Again, having done this for a living, it is inconceivable to me that a defected asset in CIA or DOD custody would have the opportunity to "escape," and make and post a video on the internet. Unless things have really changed at Langley or Arlington, it just could not happen that way.

It gets better. Now he wants to go home. Here is where the intelligence community has a dilemma. There are now the same questions as in the Yurchenko case - had he been the real thing; was his information real or fabricated? There are some similarities, but differences as well. Yurchenko was a "walk in" - he came to us. "Walk ins" want something, and in many cases are willing to tell you what you want to hear in return for asylum, money or other considerations. That does not mean they do not have valuable intelligence information, but it is important that the infomation is properly vetted. Yurchenko came prepared with two names of Americans who were working for Soviet intelligence - that's pretty good bona fides.

I do not know the exact circumstances of Amiri's relationship with the CIA. From reading the press accounts, there are multiple scenarios - none good, especially for Shahram Amiri. Returning to Iran if he was not sent - and there is no indication that he was, given Iran's constant demands for his return - is reminiscent of the Husayn Kamil case in Iraq.

Husayn Kamil was the chief of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and Saddam Husayn's son in law. In 1995, Kamil defected to Jordan with his wife, brother and his brother's wife (another daughter of Saddam Husayn). In 1996, the group returned to Iraq after Saddam threatened to kill their extended families. The two brothers were killed three days later.

One has to wonder if the Iranian intelligence service, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (VEVAK) got word to Amiri that his family back in Iran was in jeopardy if he did not return. Would Iranian intelligence make that threat? My experience with them tells me that they would and probably did.

Complicating the issue are State Department statements. Spokesman P.J. Crowley said Amiri had "been here for some time, I'm not going to specify for how long...." I know P.J., and he means well, but it would be better if he avoided making oblique comments on intelligence matters - leave that to the professionals. Then we have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's gratuitous remarks about the three American hikers detained in Iran. If they were part of the equation, which is entirely possible, she has just gained them a longer stay in Evin prison.

There is also the possibility that, like many defectors, Amiri fabricated much of the information he provided and the CIA basically cut him loose. In that case, all of the information he may have provided is suspect and a burn notice would be issued - yes, we actually call it that.

As I said, I am only speculating, but I have worked with defectors, embassy walk-ins and regular recruited assets before. I suspect that Amiri had useful intelligence information, but probably not the "keys to the kingdom." He defected and for whatever reason, his family remained behind. Perhaps the CIA was unable to engineer their departure, or for whatever reason they did not want to leave - it happens.

At some point, Amiri - against all orders from his resettlement officers - contacted someone in Iran. That contact, not surprisingly, came to the attention of VEVAK. VEVAK returned the contact with the threat against his family.

Watch for Amiri's "confession" or some story about his abduction. Either will be fiction. The truth? We may never know.