Those who are agonizing over whether Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri was a double agent or just an agent or whether he was kidnapped or a defector are really missing the point. Amiri was just a small cog in the Greatest Show on Earth, the $100 billion a year US intelligence community. United States intelligence is a huge and expensive bureaucracy and the information it produces must be consumed even when it does not necessarily make Americans safer. More important than that, it is a product that must have enough bells and whistles to impress Congress, the media, and the White House to keep the money flowing. What that all translates to is that every success, no matter how minor or even debatable, must be spun and promoted to the fullest while every failure must be concealed. The tendency to do so is not unique to the intelligence community and one has only to look at the military’s contrived narratives relating to Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch, both of which were completely fictitious but supportive of a tale of heroism and self-sacrifice that the Pentagon was promoting.
CIA Case Officers are the bureaucratic version of used car salesmen. Their goal in life is to make the sale, get promoted and upwardly reassigned, and then walk away. The after sale warranty is somebody else’s problem. If there is a warranty. Amiri walked into that showroom and was told that he could have any car he wanted. The CIA officer, scenting a huge promotion if he were to snag an Iranian scientist, was ready to help him sign on the bottom line. He flew in a "manager" from Washington who was able to confirm that the Iranian was the real thing, someone who was involved in Iranian nuclear technology, albeit it at a real low level and with little access to anything of note. Amiri agreed to cooperate in exchange for eventual resettlement and a fat bank account.
Nothing unusual there. The CIA encounters lots of walk-ins, people who claim to have information valuable to the US government. Many are picked up and run for a while to determine if they have anything useful. Most don’t and the relationship is quietly ended, referred to as termination. Amiri had little to offer but it was a feather in several caps for the agency to say that it had an agent inside the Iranian nuclear program. And there was something that Amiri could contribute that fit in with other information. He knew enough scientists and talked with enough others to have a good idea about the alleged nuclear weapons program, which he was reasonably certain did not actually exist. It was a judgment that had been corroborated by other sources, but it’s always nice to have some extra confirmation. Amiri’s information was used in the ongoing National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, which has been languishing for more than two years, caught between the Bush and Obama Administrations’ desire to have a "strong" document justifying the use of force and the insistence of intelligence analysts that the information pass the smell test and not lead to something similar to the 2002 NIE on Iraq, which was a pack of lies.
Then someone somewhere in the Washington bureaucracy determined that it was just possible that the Iranians were on to Amiri who then decided to defect during the annual Hajj to Saudi Arabia. The CIA officers who had been running him and who really didn’t know much about him apart from that he appeared to be genuine agreed. If anyone wondered why he was leaving his family behind, it was immediately assumed that that the Iranians might not let them all out together while others speculated that he didn’t get along with his wife, a logical assessment since most CIA officers don’t get along with theirs. The Saudis helped arrange the disappearance and Amiri resurfaced in the United States under a classified program whereby the CIA has blanket authority to admit into the United States a small group of "persons of interest" every year. Amiri was one of them. They don’t come in on visas or student waivers. After being thoroughly and painfully debriefed, polygraphed, and examined they are eventually given new names, jobs, and a comfortable bank account before being resettled. The CIA becomes responsible for them for the rest of their lives.
When Amiri arrived, the White House and CIA moved quickly to embarrass the Iranians and take credit for an intelligence coup, leaking the defection to the media and then announcing the arrival of a major scientist working on the Iranian nuclear program, even though they knew it was a lie. Everyone involved got promoted. Some even get a nice medal which is kept in a vault at CIA headquarters and can be shown to no one. Score a big one for US intelligence and the White House and everyone is smiling.
Then came the dark side. Amiri missed his son, but more than that, he feared for his safety. He learned that his wife and son were under house arrest with the Revolutionary Guard and that used Buick didn’t look so good anymore. He received a deliberately floated message from friends in the Iranian community that indicated that his family was in real danger. So he went by the Iranian Interests Section in the Pakistani Embassy in Washington and told them that he wanted to go home. It was all a mistake and he had been kidnapped by the Americans. No one believed him but the story had a certain plausibility and could be exploited to embarrass Washington, so the Iranians played along.
But the National Security machine must be triumphant and there were more cards to play. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that Amiri was a guy who defected but who was now free to leave, just like anyone else living in the US, a lie so big that it has to be described as breathtaking. To get even for Amiri’s perfidy, he was described as having produced great information for a number of years, which ensures that the Iranians will never trust him and will eventually make him disappear. Too bad. The wages of sin. The whole thing was wrapped up by the White House as if it were a great intelligence coup, which it was not. In reality Amiri was let go because he had no more information to provide so why spend a few million dollars resettling him? Intelligence budgets are getting cut so why waste the money? If Amiri had had anything more worth telling he would never have been allowed out of his hotel room without a "minder" and he would never have been able to walk into the Pakistani Embassy.
I have spoken to a number of intelligence officers who claim to have some insights into what went on with Shahram Amiri. My sources all agree that Amiri was not kidnapped. If he had been he would have disappeared down some hole after being "encouraged" to tell everything he knows. He was a volunteer, meaning he contacted the CIA himself, one account being that it was done over the internet and another suggesting that he walked into the US Consulate General in Istanbul. Either way he volunteered his services. He cooperated with the US for a while and there is nothing in what he provided that would suggest that he was a double agent. He did not have information of any real value apart from his secondhand corroboration of the lack of any Iranian nuclear weapons program, which might merit a footnote in the Iran NIE if it ever emerges. If he had been truly doubled one would have expected a long, carefully contrived narrative replete with blind allies and complicated deceptions. Amiri’s greatest impact will come when the Iran NIE report is again revisited in light of the re-defection, a process that has already begun. Poor Amiri was a small fish swimming in a pool full of piranhas and his future is bleak. He meant nothing, did not materially assist the United States, and is now being tossed away after being used to tout the great American intelligence success story. He will be disposed of by the Iranians after he has been similarly used.