The Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri has returned to Tehran, and immediately the critics are accusing the Central Intelligence Agency of mishandling the situation. Was Amiri an Iranian plant? Was he a mole? Was he a double agent? Did Amiri bring misinformation and disinformation to fool U.S. intelligence and U.S. decision-makers on the important issue of Iran's nuclear capabilities?
The fact of the matter is that these defectors come and defectors often go; they are rarely stable to begin with and the fact that Amiri left a wife and family behind in Iran points to serious questions about his own stability.
The case of Vitaly Yurchenko, a top KGB officer, is illustrative and somewhat typical. Yurchenko provided important intelligence information about the Walker spy ring (perhaps the most important operation in the KGB's history); exposed the duplicity of a CIA trainee, Edward Lee Howard, and an official from the National Security Agency, Ronald Pelton; and provided important operational materials. But he returned to the Soviet Union within several months, and immediately there were the same questions. Was he a deliberate KGB plant? Did he provide misinformation? Was he a double agent?
The truth of the matter was far more simple: Yurchenko was led to believe that his girlfriend in Canada would be joining him in the United States, and he became extremely depressed when she changed her mind. Quite often, the situation is just that simple.
In the case of Amiri, the United States apparently got very good information on the Iranian nuclear program and even got to keep most of the $5 million given to Amiri because various sanctions will keep him from getting his hands on the money. This is an incredibly good example of having your cake and eating it too. And I would add that it is quite possible that Amiri's information corroborates the CIA's original view that Iran is no closer to developing an operational nuclear weapon, which was the conclusion of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) several years ago. Certainly, if Amiri had brought good and incriminating information on Iran's nuclear program, it would have been leaked already.
Meanwhile, the intelligence community continues to drag its heels on a supplement to the NIE, presumably because it does not support the hard-line views of the anti-Iran faction in the Obama administration. If so, it suggests that the politicization of intelligence is not merely a thing of the past.
The best information to be obtained from defectors such as Amiri comes early in the process. The longer the defector stays in the United States, the more he begins to dissemble or to acculturate his information to match what the CIA is seeking.
It is important to keep in mind, in any event, that the CIA rarely recruits foreign assets. The CIA's National Clandestine Service (NCS) relies on walk-ins. The most successful walk-ins, moreover, such as Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, often have great difficulty in getting CIA operatives to accept them. The NCS has had little success in recruiting assets in the closed world of terrorism or in closed societies such as China, Iran, and North Korea. Many of the agents recruited from Cuba, East Germany, and the former Soviet Union were double agents reporting to their host governments. The successful suicide bomber in Afghanistan in December 2009 was a double agent.
The CIA has to rely on foreign intelligence liaison sources for sensitive intelligence collection and even the recruitment of foreign assets. There are few al Qaeda operatives who have been killed or captured without the assistance of foreign liaison, particularly the Pakistani intelligence service. But the suicide bomber at the CIA base in Afghanistan in 2009 was recruited with the help of the Jordanian intelligence service, an extremely risky way to recruit assets; he was brought onto the base without proper inspection and was permitted to meet with more than a dozen officers. The operational tradecraft was abysmal.
The loss of top-ranking CIA operations officers in Afghanistan points to the need for a review of CIA clandestine operations rather than heightened scrutiny of Amiri's bonafides. Yurchenko was handled by too many low-ranking operational officers, and very few with linguistic capabilities to even talk to Yurchenko. It may be that Amiri could have been handled better. Moreover, the CIA's eagerness to openly discuss the defection is endangering Amiri's life and discouraging future defectors. The CIA is an intelligence organization; it should know when to keep its mouth shut.
The current CIA director, Leon Panetta, a former congressman, has surrendered to the clandestine culture and cadre; he is unlikely to lead a reform movement. And President Obama's appointment of former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin, a master of the CIA cover-up over the past two decades, to examine the intelligence failures that led to the attempted bombing of a commercial airliner on Christmas Day and the shootings at Fort Hood points to a continued cover-up of intelligence flaws.