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Iranian technocrats, disillusioned with government, offer wealth of intelligence to U.S.
The departures of Amiri and others have given new momentum to a "brain drain" program set up by the CIA in recent years as part of a broader effort to slow Iran's nuclear progress by sabotaging equipment being shipped into the country and enticing key scientists to defect.
Art Keller, a retired CIA officer, said the agency's goal in recruiting agents is almost always to "run them in place." But in Iran -- where the government uncovered a network of CIA informants and executed its members more than a decade ago -- recruiting spies is regarded as extremely dangerous. "Particularly when it comes to clandestine weapons programs," Keller said, "where the scientists are watched like a hawk."
The CIA declined to discuss the brain-drain program or characterize the information provided by defectors such as Amiri. It also declined to comment on an ABC News report that Amiri has been resettled in the United States.
But Iranian news reports have identified Amiri as a researcher for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. The National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), an opposition group that publicly revealed the existence of a secret uranium-enrichment program in 2003, said Amiri had been associated with sensitive nuclear programs for at least a decade. Iran contends that Amiri was kidnapped.
Some observers say the Tehran government has been unnerved by the defections and point to the death of an Iranian physics professor more than three months ago as a sign that it has begun a crackdown designed to frighten would-be spies.
The professor, Masoud Ali Mohammadi, was killed Jan. 12 when a bomb planted on a motorcycle exploded as he passed nearby. Iranian officials accused Israeli and Western intelligence operatives in the killing, but news accounts indicated that Mohammadi had been sympathetic to the opposition movement and had attended anti-government demonstrations. The day before his death, Iranian intelligence agents had searched his home and confiscated documents and notes, according to a report by the NCRI.
Learning from mistakes
In public testimony over the past three years, senior U.S. intelligence officials have avoided contradicting the language used in the 2007 NIE, despite privately asserting that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon. An unclassified U.S. military report submitted to Congress this month concluded: "Iran is developing technological capabilities applicable to nuclear weapons and, at a minimum, is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons."
The 2007 report stressed that Iran was still taking other steps that could help it acquire nuclear arms, but any nuance was lost in the fierce debate that followed. Like the new version, the 2007 estimate was revised repeatedly as its release date neared.
Indeed, it was essentially scrapped and rewritten after the United States obtained secret computer records that described a decision by Iranian leaders to cancel work on a warhead around the time U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq in 2003.
Critics blamed the document -- a version of which was released to the public -- for creating the impression that the Iranian threat had subsided and for derailing the George W. Bush administration's hard-line approach.
The report's authors subsequently acknowledged that it was poorly written for a public audience and, as a result, was widely misunderstood.
A U.S. official briefed on the progress of the new NIE said analysts are under pressure to avoid their predecessors' mistakes. The document is now scheduled to be delivered by August, the official said, adding that "there is an expectation that the previous one will be corrected."
U.S. officials said there will be a major difference in how the new estimate is presented. The previous document triggered headlines that Iran had backed away from its pursuit of the bomb largely because officials decided to release a version to the public. The officials said they now see that decision as a mistake and have no plans this time to make portions of the estimate public.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.