Carelessness or Betrayal? This Is How the US Abandoned Its Spies in Iran

Murad Jandali | 2 years ago

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Amid Washington's priority of curbing Tehran's nuclear ambitions and gathering sensitive intelligence in this regard, six Iranians spent between 5 and 10 years in prison after Iranian intelligence exposed their links to the CIA.

Those spies who were convicted of spying by their government between 2009 and 2015 complain in interviews to Reuters that the CIA has abandoned them and does not care about their fate, while former US officials admit that the protection that Washington provided to its spies varied according to the importance of the person and the sensitive information they were able to bring to them.

These spies detections may pose a challenge to the credibility of the CIA as it seeks to rebuild an espionage network in Iran, while some of these cases were reported by official Iranian media and described the agency as unskilled or incompetent.

The CIA considers Iran one of its most difficult targets. Since Iranian students took over the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, the United States has had no diplomatic presence, forcing CIA officers to recruit Iranian spies either outside the country or through traditional communications.

It is noteworthy that disclosing state secrets is a dangerous matter for which the perpetrator is punished according to the penalties stipulated in each country, but the most dangerous is disclosing secrets to an enemy state, as this is a crime that may be punished with death.

 

American Carelessness

A year-long investigation published by Reuters on September 29, 2022, revealed several Iranian spies who worked for the United States, but it abandoned them and left them to their unknown fate.

The importance of this investigation stems from the scarcity of documented information on recruitment and espionage operations for the CIA inside Iran.

One of these spies is Gholam Reza Hosseini, who was arrested minutes before leaving Iran at Imam Khomeini Airport in late 2010 when he was preparing to board a flight to Bangkok. The Iranian industrial engineer was scheduled to meet with CIA officials.

As the report said, before Hosseini could pay the exit fee, an airport teller rejected his card as invalid, and moments later, a security officer asked to see his passport before taking him away.

Hosseini said he was taken to an empty VIP lounge and told to sit on a sofa facing the wall.

Then, Hosseini took out an electronic memory card full of state secrets that could lead to his execution from his pocket, chewed it in his mouth, and swallowed it.

It did not take long, according to Hosseini's account, which was reported by Reuters, until the men of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence entered the room and began interrogating him, accompanied by the beatings.

His denial and destruction of the data in his possession seemed worthless because the investigators already knew everything, to the complete astonishment of the CIA agent.

"These are things I have not told anyone in the world," Hosseini told Reuters. As he asked himself questions, Hosseini suspected that the CIA had sold him.

After working for a year on this investigation, the agency concluded that Hosseini was not a victim of treason but of neglect, as the CIA's faulty covert communications system made it easier for Iranian intelligence to identify and arrest Hosseini.

Hosseini revealed to Reuters that after he was imprisoned for nearly ten years and released in 2019, the CIA had no contact with him.

As for Hosseini's motive to work for the CIA, it is summed up in the huge decline of his company that works in the industrial field due to the strong entry of the Revolutionary Guard into this sector during the presidency of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This made his social level decline rapidly and made him send a letter to the CIA in 2007 saying that he was an industrial engineer who worked at the Natanz nuclear site and had information. A month later, he received a reply via email.

Three months after this call, Hosseini traveled to Dubai, where he searched in Souk Madinat Jumeirah for a blonde woman with a black book named Chris, who was accompanied by a man translating from English to Persian.

Hosseini explained to Chris that several years ago, his company worked for decades to improve the flow of electricity at the Natanz site, a complex work to keep centrifuges spinning at the speed required to enrich uranium.

Hosseini told Chris that his company was under contract with Kalaye Electric, a company subject to US government sanctions in 2007 for its alleged role in developing Iran's nuclear program, adding that he was seeking additional contracts at other sensitive nuclear and military sites.

The next day, the same three people met again, this time in Hosseini's hotel room, and Hosseini showed him a maze-like map showing electricity connected to the Natanz nuclear facility, with Chris' mouth wide open, Hosseini said.

According to Hosseini, the notations on the map of the amount of energy flowing into the nuclear facility provided Washington with a baseline for estimating the number of active centrifuges at the time, and this evidence could have been used to assess progress in processing the HEU needed to make a nuclear weapon.

 

Iranian Spies

Reuters found that Hosseini was not a unique case among spies working for the United States and that the CIA's carelessness of several security aspects in its intense campaign to gather information on Iran put those who would risk their lives to help Washington at risk.

For example, the CIA ordered one of its spies to put his information in Turkiye, where it knew it was under Iranian surveillance.

Another man, a former government employee who traveled to Abu Dhabi in order to obtain a US visa, alleged that a CIA officer there had unsuccessfully tried to get him to spy for the Americans, leading to his arrest when he returned to Iran.

Reuters considered that such steps by the CIA endanger the lives of ordinary Iranians, with little prospect of obtaining useful intelligence.

It also quoted Iranian spies that when they were arrested, the CIA did not provide any help to them or their families, even years later.

Former CIA counterintelligence chief James Olson said he was unaware of these cases but stressed that the abandonment of intelligence sources by the agency was a professional and ethical failure.

Reuters concluded that the communications system that led to Hosseini's detection no longer exists, likely to have led to the detection of at least 20 other spies in Iran and possibly hundreds more in other countries.

In this context, Reuters recalled a warning issued by the CIA last year, stressing that it has lost most of its network of spies in Iran and that the traditional sloppy communications continue to jeopardize its mission around the world, as stated in the New York Times.

The agency recounts part of the experience of six Iranians who were imprisoned for spying for the United States. Four of them, including Hosseini, remained inside Iran after their release, still subject to arrest again, while two fled the country and became stateless refugees.

The six men admitted that CIA officials made no firm promises of help if they were caught, but nonetheless all believed that American help would come one day.

 

Intelligence Operations

In the past years, Iran announced the arrest of dozens of people suspected of spying for Western governments hostile to it, and most of them were convicted of spying for the American and Israeli governments.

On July 21, 2019, official Iranian media announced the arrest of 17 CIA agents in Iran who were working in sensitive and vital centers in the economic, nuclear, military, cyber, and infrastructure sectors.

At the time, the administration of US President Donald Trump denied the authenticity of this news, but what Reuters recently revealed showed the success of Iranian intelligence and the failure of the CIA in maintaining the safety of its agents.

In June 2019, Iranian state television broadcast a special program on the details of an operation that took place in 2013, during which the Iranian authorities dismantled a CIA spy network.

In May 2011, Iran's Ministry of Intelligence said it had arrested 30 spies belonging to a US spy network that had asked them to spy on Iranian research institutes, universities, nuclear programs, and other sites, according to Associated Press.

As well as in October 2010, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence said it had arrested a number of people believed to be spying on Iran's nuclear facilities and activities, according to Iran's state-run Press TV website.

From 2009 to 2013, the US intelligence community suffered crippling intelligence failures related to its covert Internet communications system, a major means of remote messaging between CIA officers and sources on the ground around the world.

The previously unreported global problem originated in Iran and spiderweb to other countries and was not fixed—despite warnings about what was happening—until more than two dozen sources in China died in 2011 and 2012 as a result, according to 11 former US intelligence and security officials.