An American is caught in Iran’s spy game

Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the location of the Army’s Combined Arms Support Command. It is at Fort Lee, Va., not Fort Leavenworth, Kan. This version has been corrected.

Walter Pincus
Reporter January 23, 2012

Amir Hekmati, a 28-year-old former Marine, was sentenced to death for espionage by Iran’s revolutionary court on Jan. 9.

In December, Iran released videos in which Hekmati in both Persian and English gave his history and “confessed” to being trained to become a double agent by the CIA.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

As in any good spy story, there are questions: Was Hekmati coerced into making a false confession? Was he telling the truth? Or was he another innocent pawn in the covert intelligence war between Tehran and Washington?

In one Dec. 18 Iranian video, Hekmati said, “It was their [the CIA’s] plan to first burn some useful information [i.e., take classified secrets the United States was willing to pass to the Iranians], give it to them and let Iran’s intelligence ministry think that this is good material.” That was to put him in a position as a double agent, according to a Tehran Times story.

In the intelligence world this is called a “dangle operation,” where a well-trained person is sent into a foreign country with a story that he or she is willing to give or sell. To prove credibility, the “dangled” agent provides “secret” information.


A video screen shot from a program aired by official Iranian state TV on Dec. 18, 2011, shows a young man alleged to be a captured CIA spy of Iranian origin confessing to a "mission" to infiltrate the intelligence ministry. The video named the man as Amir Mirza Hekmati and said he was born in Arizona. (-/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Security agencies worldwide are familiar with the tactic and almost immediately place the person involved under suspicion. A country such as Iran would use intense interrogation — and physical torture — to expose a double agent.

On the other hand, Iran’s recent history has been to arrest innocent Americans for spying and release them when it sees fit.

Hekmati’s Marine service and subsequent Pentagon-related jobs made him a more likely catch for Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security to use for propaganda.

Iran learned the details about Hekmati’s background last summer when he applied to the Iran interest section in Washington for a passport to visit his grandmother for the celebration of Ramadan. Though he was born in Flagstaff, Ariz., his parents were born in Iran, which automatically meant dual citizenship. To visit Iran he had to use an Iranian passport, according to the interest section.

His application required him to supply his birth, education and military service records , employment history and foreign travel. It required him to list separately the foreign countries where he had spent more than six months.

Hekmati was assured by the Iran interest section that despite his military service in Iraq and later work as a Pentagon contractor and subcontractor, it would be safe for him to visit, according to Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

Hekmati flew to Tehran in mid-August and spent almost two weeks at his grandmother’s house, according to Ghaemi.

He was arrested Aug. 29.

After the video “confession,” his mother, Behnaz Hekmati, said, “It is clear to me and our entire family that Amir is speaking under duress.”

Hekmati joined the Marines in August 2001, after graduating high school in Flint, Mich. He trained at Camp Pendleton, Calif., as a rifleman, but because he spoke some Farsi he was sent to the Defense Language Institute to learn Arabic. From April through September 2004 he was deployed to Iraq doing translation work. In August 2005, as a sergeant, he left the Marines after his four-year enlistment ended.

His father, Ali Hekmati, a microbiology professor at Mott Community College in Flint, and his mother have refused to discuss their son’s past on the advice of their attorney, who is trying to free him.

Based on records, in February 2006 Hekmati set up his own company, Lucid Linguistics LLC. It was to do translation work, specializing in Arabic, Persian and military-related matters, according to one of several Web sites on which Hekmati listed his company.

In 2008, the Mitre Corp. published the results of a five-year, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-financed study of two-way translation systems in tactical military situations. Amir Hekmati is listed as one of those who worked on the study.

In late 2008, the Army’s Combined Arms Support Command at Fort Lee, Va., awarded a $96 million defense contract for a video-game-based foreign language training tool. The contract, won by a McLean company now known as Six3 Systems Inc., employed subcontractors. Hekmati is listed as the principal investigator with his Lucid Linguistics phone number but an e-mail address at the New York-based video-game developer Kuma LLC.

In spring 2010, Hekmati participated in a six-month training program run by BAE Systems at Fort Leavenworth for persons seeking to join the Army’s Human Terrain Teams, primarily to provide cultural and language expertise to deployed military units in Iraq and Afghanistan. Army records show Hekmati served on an Iraq team from September 2010 to May 2011. He resigned in June 2011.

That month he was in Washington and may have gone to the Iran Interest Section to explore visiting his grandmother.

Let’s match that information with Hekmati’s most extensive “confession.”

On the Iranian video he said he joined DARPA and worked “with the cybersecurity program,” instead of the Mitre project, funded by DARPA. He said he was “recruited by Kuma Games,” which he described as receiving “money from [the] CIA” to design games to create a favorable mindset among Middle Easterners on U.S. actions in Iraq — not the language- refreshing games listed in Hekmati’s Army contract.

Hekmati said the CIA arranged his BAE Systems contract to allow him to learn “how to use secret systems and methods for gathering information,” not, as the Army says, for being part of a Human Terrain Team to work on helping the U.S. military in Iraq understand local cultures.

Finally, he said the CIA told him that because of the cover given him,“I would not face any problem in the way of conducting my mission” in Iran. The Iranian interest section in Washington said his military past would be no problem.

The Iranian television documentary on Hekmati said Iranian intelligence officers “recognized the deception” and then analyzed his past travels to determine whether he was a CIA agent.

I believe Iranian intelligence in midsummer recognized a naive Iranian American with a Pentagon past had dropped into their laps at a time when international pressure was building to release two American hikers who had been held as spies since July 2009.

Twenty-five days after Hekmati’s arrest, hikers Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal were released.

Hekmati, spy or pawn? I believe the latter.

For more Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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