The story of Shahram Amiri, an Iranian researcher in the nuclear field, has been front page news over the past two weeks. Amiri, who worked at the Malek Ashtar University in Tehran, disappeared in Saudi Arabia – according to the Iranian version – for more than a year after being kidnapped at the hands of the CIA, only to later appear in a video recording on the YouTube website, and then again in another special recording on Iranian state television. Over the past year, Iran has repeatedly accused the Americans of the kidnapping in the face of US denials, however during the past months the Americans came out to confirm his presence in the US, and they went further than this when they allowed him to freely leave the country and return to Tehran. The entire story is fraught with questions and contradictions, and some people will continue the futile attempt to unravel the mystery surrounding what happened. This is because in the end this is the work of secret intelligence agencies, and what one sees on the surface does not necessarily reflect what really happened.
However what is certain is that Amiri’s tale is not the first Iranian tale such as this, nor will it be the last, in fact Amiri’s story comes in the middle of a notable month for intelligence services. The US uncovered a cell of Russian agents working within America, which resulted in a spy exchange between the two countries in scenes reminiscent of the Cold War. South Korea last week also arrested a prominent businessman, claiming that he was working for North Korea. It seems that in this age of the internet, unmanned aircraft, and satellite imaging; intelligence services still need human elements to infiltrate huge countries like America through the pages of Facebook or by copying documents that could be obtained through internet hacking.
In the book “Inside the CIA’s Private World: Declassified Articles from the Agency’s Internal Journal, 1955 – 1992” (1997), the editor Bradford Westerfield reveals that the phenomenon of an individual deserting his homeland and volunteering to work for foreign intelligence only to go back on this and insist upon returning to his homeland is something that has happened repeatedly over the past decades. A number of these cases remain vague and unresolved, even to the intelligence agents themselves, as each agent is dealt with as being a possible double agent.
Perhaps the most prominent story to parallel Shahram Amiri’s case is that of Russian intelligence officer Vitaly Yurchenko, who defected to the US in 1985 during a business trip to Rome. He supplied the CIA with the names of two American intelligence officers who were working with Russia, however after spending three months in the US Yurchenko decided to flee. Whilst eating a meal at a restaurant close to Georgetown University in Washington, Yurchenko was able to evade his CIA guard by escaping out of the toilets and seeking refuge in the Soviet Union embassy, which returned him to Moscow. Moscow decided not to kill him in order to convince other dissidents abroad to return peacefully.
In the same book, in a chapter entitled “Psychology of Treason” senior CIA psychologist Wilhelm Marbes suggests that “defection, at least on the part of people who are willing and/or driven to commit treason, is an act of strong feelings. Often it is an act of desperation.” The results of a study conducted on a dozen agents over the past thirty years confirmed they were vulnerable to specific psychological conditions, including “immaturity/impulsivity,” “sociopathy,” and “narcissism.”
Until we understand Amiri’s story, we should place this within a wider framework. On an individual level, Amiri could be an American agent who returned out of fear for his family, or an Iranian agent who was planted to mislead the Americans. It’s true that he used to work at the Ministry of Defense affiliated Malek Ashtar University, which international inspectors have not been allowed to visit in the past. It is also true that he was close to Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi – or Iran’s Abdul Qadeer Khan as he is called by some – who many intelligence services around the world believe to be the spiritual father of the Iranian nuclear project. However his intelligence value is in doubt because he isn’t actually a nuclear scientist, or familiar with the specifics of the Iranian nuclear program, however it’s certain that he played a significant role.
What’s important in Amiri’s case is not him individually, for maybe he was used by either or both of the parties or maybe he used them, but rather what he told them, or what both parties obtained from him. In early 2007, the US National Intelligence Council published the National Intelligence Estimates report which deals with strategic risk faced by the US. The most prominent National Intelligence Estimate was linked to the Iranian nuclear file, with the report explicitly saying that Iran had stopped its military [nuclear] program in 2003, despite continuing a uranium enrichment program. This report was met with surprise from many governments, as the information that was available at the time contradicted this. On Monday 16 July 2010, the New York Times published a report quoting a former – unnamed – official, who said that the 2007 National Intelligence Estimates report principally relied on information that was obtained from Shahram Amiri. If this is proved to be true, then one has to question the reliability of dozens of reports and statements that were provided to decision-makers around the world and who are responsible for taking decisions that affect the interests and security of millions.
Take for example the Iraq war, where some people in the US government relied upon an Iraqi source, a dissident by the name of Rafid Ahmed Alwen, who claimed that Iraq had transferred its biological weapons operations to mobile labs. This information was repeated in a State of the Union speech by President Bush in 2002, and in former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s address to the UN Security Council, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s regime did represent a threat to international security, but justifying the invasion on the existence of biological or chemical weapons was wrong.
The reliance upon dissident sources is a routine matter in security operations, for without obtaining inside knowledge you cannot build a picture or fashion a political agenda to deal with any potential political or military threat that you may face as a political regime. However the problem is in relying upon one source or element, whose choices and actions are governed by natural human psychology, which can change over time. Relying upon one source of information represents an institutional failure, and the inevitable result of this is that the dissident will say whatever his employers want to hear, or convey whatever information that others want to promote.
One would think that technological advances would perhaps contribute to the provision of credible information for the decision-makers, but it turns out that this progress has provided more information than traditional intelligence agencies can deal with and verify. Therefore decision-makers become akin to fortune-tellers, choosing from different scenarios based on instinct. If the case of Shahram Amiri revealed anything, it is that the extent of what we know about what is happening in our region is very limited, even for decision makers, and that what is described as critical information could be nothing more than suspicions invented in the imaginations of men like Shahram Amiri.