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31/07/2019 | Analysis: Did the US Central Intelligence Agency lose 17 spies in Iran?

Joseph Fitsanakis

If the announcements from Tehran are to be believed, the United States Central Intelligence Agency lost at least 17 spies in Iran in the months leading up to March 2019.

 

According to Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, the Islamic Republic busted an alleged “CIA network” operating in sensitive private sector companies and government agencies that relate to defense, aerospace and energy. At least some of the 17 alleged spies have reportedly been sentenced to death, though their exact number remains unknown.

Officials in Tehran said on Sunday that all of the purported spies are Iranian nationals and were lured by the CIA with promises of receiving visas to enter America. Others were already in possession of visas and were “blackmailed” to spy for the US in order to have them renewed by the US Department of State, according to Iranian media reports. Visa applicants were allegedly carefully selected based on their work in critical areas such as Iran’s nuclear program or defense procurement.

A government-sanctioned documentary, which aired on Iran’s state owned television on Monday, claimed that the 17 spies did not know each other, but all had been trained independently in clandestine tradecraft. This allegedly included setting up and using secret communications systems, as well as carrying out dead drops without being detected. Dead drops utilized  containers made to look like rocks, which were located “in parks and other mountainous areas” in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East, according to Iranian officials. Some of the assets communicated with their handlers while attending science conferences through- out Europe, Africa and Asia.

The Iranian television documentary claimed that the 17 arrests had “dealt a lethal blow to US foreign intelligence”. But US President Donald Trump said in a tweet that Tehran’s allegations were “totally false” and contained “zero truth”, just “more lies and propaganda” from Tehran.

Who is right? To begin with, there is no question that the CIA recruits heavily in Iran, given that the Islamic Republic is one of America’s —indeed the world’s— primary intelligence targets. What is more, since 1979, when Washington lost its embassy in Iran, the CIA have found it more difficult to collect accurate information from inside the energy-rich country. Therefore, the need for dependable assets inside Iran has increased exponentially, and has become even more pressing now, given the importance placed on Iran by Donald Trump. Additionally, the descriptions of CIA asset acquisition operations by the Iranians ring true. In the absence of an embassy and diplomatic immunity, it is dangerous for CIA case officers to operate inside Iran, so the spy agency recruits many of its assets from among Iran’s Westernized elite that is able to travel abroad.

But losing 17 assets in one big sweep sounds fantastical. If it is true, it would signify one of the biggest intelligence-collection disasters in the CIA’s 72-year history. Furthermore, given that —as the Iranians themselves have said— the 17 alleged spies did not know each other, it would have taken a massive amount of counterintelligence resources to detect, build cases and apprehend 17 separate foreign assets. What is more likely to have happened is that the Iranians detected a small number of CIA spies —possibly no more than two or three— and then slowly extended their counterintelligence investigation to incorporate those three individuals’ close associates, relatives, or even spouses. At that stage, Iranian authorities would have used their investigative privileges to target employees of agencies or companies with access to sensitive information who are deemed too pro-Western, have a history of making critical remarks of the Iranian government, etc. That is probably how the investigation grew to incorporate so many alleged spies.

What is more worrying for the CIA is that the Iranians appear to have visually identified a number of CIA case officers, whose job is to recruit and handle foreign assets. These are ostensibly US Department of State diplomatic personnel who are stationed in countries such as Austria, India, Turkey and Zimbabwe. But the Iranians claim that these diplomats are in fact official-cover CIA personnel and have now publicized their faces. At one point during Monday’s television program, a blonde Caucasian woman is seen advising an unidentified man about how to avoid surveillance by Iranian intelligence officers in the United Arab Emirates. She is speaking Farsi with an unmistakable American accent. If the Iranians are right, it means that these individuals will need to be recalled back to Washington as soon as possible and that their overseas careers are now at an end, since foreign counterintelligence services know that they are in fact intelligence officers. Additionally, the safety of their assets and foreign contacts will need to be reassessed on a case-by-case base, and many human-intelligence operations —some of them many years in the making— will need to be terminated. Thus, if the Iranians are telling the truth, many offices at the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, will be in recovery mode for many months to come.

Intelnews.org (Estados Unidos)

 



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