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Iranian nuclear scientist mystery: CIA Intelligence group weighs in

Shahram Amiri, who claimed to have been abducted by the CIA, was paid more than $5 million for intelligence on Iran's nuclear program, U.S. officials said.

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Elizabeth Bancroft
Executive Director, Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO)
Thursday, July 15, 2010; 1:00 PM

The Iranian nuclear scientist who claimed to have been abducted by the CIA before departing for his homeland Wednesday was paid more than $5 million by the agency to provide intelligence on Iran's nuclear program, U.S. officials said.

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Elizabeth Bancroft, executive director of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, was online Thursday, July 15, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the case.

Shahram Amiri is not obligated to return the money but might be unable to access it after breaking off what U.S. officials described as significant cooperation with the CIA and abruptly returning to Iran. Officials said he might have left out of concern that the Tehran government would harm his family.

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Elizabeth Bancroft: Hi. This is Elizabeth Bancroft, Executive Director of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers in McLean, Virginia, here today to take your questions about the Iranian scientist suddenly departure back to Iran.

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Tucson, Ariz.: What has the reaction been from Saudi Arabia given the assertions that Saudi intelligence assisted the U.S. with the so called "abduction."

Elizabeth Bancroft: So far we have not heard anything from the Saudi's about this matter. Usually a country where the contact is made stands back no matter how the arrangement turns out months or years later. So this is not surprising.

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San Antonio, Tex.: Did it seem as if the U.S. came into new information concerning the Iranian nuclear program after Amiri disappeared last year? I.e., did U.S. officials start saying things about the program they hadn't been saying before? (This is basically a question about whether those $5M of our tax dollars were well spent.)

Elizabeth Bancroft: If one recalls, over the past year there have been numerous comments in the media from unnamed official sources evidencing greater knowledge of the current state of Iran's nuclear ambitions. Precisely where that information came from is never revealed unless a leak has gone too far.

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Alexandria, Va.: I'm a bit surprised that the intelligence community hasn't done anything to extract his family from Iran. I'd think that for a valuable source on a hot-button topic like Iran's nuclear program, an extra step would take measure. Certainly it had to occur to someone that the man's family would be used against him. Was this a case where it wasn't thought about, wasn't possible, or just not worth it?

Elizabeth Bancroft: You're right. Of course, the urgency of obtaining information this crucial, and the sudden willingness of Mr. Amiri while he was in Saudi Arabia, to provide that info, does not always permit the best of arrangements. The national security needs of the U.S. have to come first in such situations, but the intelligence community tries to insure that few others are hurt by his defection.

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Washington, D.C.: According to reports Shahram Amiri said he knew practically nothing about Iran's nuclear program, that he was nothing more than an average researcher, yet we allegedly paid him $5 million. How could this be?

Elizabeth Bancroft: He is saying NOW that he knew nothing. What we are seeing is an intelligence operation with many layers. There was the defection of Amiri and his desire to share whatever information he had, and then second thoughts, later, and the decision that he now wished to protect his family and relatives. To do both of those involves the propaganda aspect of such redefections. We saw this with Vitaly Yurchenko's redefection, and we are seeing it with all the odd, contradictory, but understandable statements by Amiri now that he is back in Iran.

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Tucson, Ariz.: Agreed, and perfectly logical to protect the sanctity of Hajj given that is where our friend was purported to have been abducted. But since there is no love lost between Saudi and Iran, would it not help bolster Saudi political dominance in the region if they were to let slip that they were at least "in contact" with the U.S. on the matter?

Elizabeth Bancroft: You're right. That might happen, or be done so subtly that it does not make much news in the West. The Saudi's need to play this carefully, just as Iran and Amiri are doing. Propaganda is the major feature we are going to see from this point on. For the U.S., Amiri's claims are almost a fine recruitment tool for others in Iran, with valuable knowledge, who might wish to embrace the freedoms here in the West. His claim of $50 mil certainly adds much to the carrot.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Is this common that an informant chooses to return home knowing his/her safety is not guaranteed?

Also, what good is the information he shared with us now that he has returned to Iran and tells them exactly what he told U.S. agents.

Elizabeth Bancroft: Both sides now have to play this as a "win." There is more to lose if he were immediately tried and incarcerated or beheaded upon his return home. The Iranians are shrewd players of the propaganda value of using Amiri to make all sorts of claims: America held him in chains, that the treatment was terrible, the he was there against his will and told us nothing, etc. They are sending a signal to any others in Iran to not consider doing the same.

At the same time, his redefection for the U.S. -- while unfortunate -- occurred long after he has been debriefed hundreds of times. Is there anything left he hasn't told us? And even when he returns, and tells them what he has said to us, it will change very little of Iranian intentions and programs.

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Arlington, Va.: What are the chances that this guy is some kind of double or triple agent? Could he have been a plant to lead us astray? Or could his return to Iran be a way for him to gather even more info for us?

Elizabeth Bancroft: Many spy novels -- and real life spy cases -- have revolved around such claims. While it is always a possibility....that he was a dangle or disinformation agent, sent here to give us wrong information, and to gain an assessment what we're seeking, what we might already know. But unlikely. Intelligence agencies consider that from the minute he made contact, through every interview and debriefing, and long after this sudden departure.

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Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: What does this mean for future relations and cooperation with Iran and United States?

Elizabeth Bancroft: This will have little impact. The sanctions, the call for more inspections, and many other ways that the West is using to measure all means the Iranians are taking to rapidly advanced their nuclear capabilities will be little offset by this recent episode. Just as that sudden capture of the Russian illegals, and their rapid return to Russia in the Spy Swap will have little impact on Russian-U.S. relations.

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New York, N.Y.: What will the Iranian government's treatment of him be now that he is back? Will their public relations coup trump any ramifications against Amiri?

Elizabeth Bancroft: Yes. For now, he will receive careful, skilled handling by the Iranians to milk all the anti-Western propaganda value they can get out of him.

I would not want to be in his shoes a few years from now, when the situation is long off the front pages, and he is forgotten to us, but not to Iranian intelligence.

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Tucson, Ariz.: The reader from Alexandria is on point. We are loosing our ability to react with speed and clarity when it comes to these matters. The case officers are becoming results now from multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. We should have tried to send him back with a detailed impersonal commo plan and immediately begun using the entire community to prep for him and his family's extraction once a plan was set in place.

Elizabeth Bancroft: There may be more to this than what we are seeing. It may come as a surprise, but even in situations like this, some secrets may still exist. The hidden motives for his defection, and now his redefection, may not be as clear as some wish they were.

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Tucson, Arizona: I agree Ms. Bancroft. Highly unlikely that he was a dangle. As you rightly commented, the Iranians are very shrewd and if he was a double they would have let this play out much longer. Unlike the Yurchenko case you mentioned which was likely a straight double gone bad for them and us. Yurchenko actually debreifed "Farewell" before he "defected" the redefected. There is some thought that his defection was hatched by the bad guys in retaliation for the Farewell op.

Elizabeth Bancroft: Am I'm sure, if we were able to hear all that Amiri shared with us about "the little he knows" about Natanz, many of the claims we hear now would ring hollower than they already do.

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Tucson, Ariz.: Thanks very much for the exchange this morning. Whatever our many questions and opinions are, everyone should be proud of the individuals involved in the case and rest assured that their "5 million" was spent wisely in the pursuit of important national security issues. Best regards, Ms. Bancroft

Elizabeth Bancroft: If there was any dangle, it might end up being that $5 mil, now out of his reach. The price of having a change of heart. But it still sits as a great incentive to others in Iran, privy to their nuclear enrichment program.

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Richmond, Va.: Can he be expected to be punished in some way now that he is back, assuming he had indeed defected and given the U.S. important information? Or will the publicity protect him?

Elizabeth Bancroft: Publicity will protect him for a year or so. After that, if he were wise, he should have already gotten his family -- and himself -- out. But it is doubtful he can do that. I suspect one gets only one defection/redefection gambit before it's checkmate.

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Vienna, Va.: What are the chances this guy is just plain old crazy and never really had anything of us to tell us? I'd like to think our government wouldn't pay him $5 million unless he actually had something useful to say, but then again, it's our government.

Elizabeth Bancroft: Walk-ins [those who suddenly appear to American officials, seeking to defect and proving they have valuable info] are carefully assessed. While we were hungry for corroborating information on the nuclear enrichment activities, the U.S. is also cautious. There have been a few cases with Iraqi defectors giving us bogus information. Burned once, singed twice...we were not going to give money to another unless the information provided was solid. He had to convince nuclear scientists in Los Alamos, and he passed that test. For one who claims he knew less than any "ordinary Iranian citizen" -- then all Iranians must have PhDs in nuclear physics.

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Washington, D.C.: Will Amiri's return have any bearing on the release of the three Americans being detained in Iran as originally reported?

Elizabeth Bancroft: There are current statements the two situations are unlinked. That could change. Perhaps if this matter gets dialed-back, the heat and attention off it, there is a chance it might give hope to their release.

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Washington, D.C.: The sudden claim of paying $5 million, after he escapes/re-defects seems odd. If there is any benefit, with getting others to follow in his footsteps, then why wasn't this publicized before? "Standing offer to anyone to get the same treatment!" Coming at this time it seems to 1) minimize the value of the offer, if Amiri walked away may the deal comes with too many strings, and 2) seems to be an obvious attempt to discredit him in the eyes of the Iranian authorities. Has there been any evidence of the payment other than the claims made to the press, if not why was it raised?

Elizabeth Bancroft: In very closed societies like Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, the greatest motivation to overcome intense family ties and loyalties is money. Lots of it. There is always a risk that money, alone, will prove insufficient to make a defector comfortable in a totally new country and culture like the U.S. Some embrace it -- most do -- but a few like Amiri or Yurchenko, had dreams about what it would be like here that did not meet their expectations. Or, without family and native culture, they feel adrift, and long to return. The risks of returning are explained to them, but that final decision is up to them. He chose to return, probably to spare his family, and knowing he would be whipped into a propaganda maelstrom.

It has been well advertised in Iran (and Iraq) that the U.S. is always receptive to valuable sources...it isn't kept a secret. As for the comments by those here about his genuine defection and redefection "defaming him" -- anyone as smart as Amiri would know that a public defection he was once proud of, followed by a redefection, forces a free country like the U.S. to be honest about the situation. Iran can spin it any way they wish, but America enjoys an astute press that would ferret out the nature of his redefection. And has.

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Fairfax, Va.: Where does money like $5 million come from, the CIA budget? Are we paying for this?

Elizabeth Bancroft: When one considers the billions it costs seeking very closely-guarded secrets in other countries involving WMDs, loose nukes, biologic agents, and other major risks the West faces from terrorists and anti-Western countries, an offer of $5 million for a nuclear scientist with inside information on the enrichment activities in Iran is more valuable than all the guessing that has to occur from the use of technical means. But such information needs corroboration, if possible. So that fee is worth it. And in this case, we get to keep it after getting the information, due to his redefection. His decision.

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Elizabeth Bancroft: Thank you all for the interesting questions. These quickly breaking cases leave many loose ends so there is bound to be some mystery about such redefections, until -- years from now -- we hear of the full story from a journalist or author who has uncovered much of it. Until then, this gives us all a taste of the complexities of intelligence operations where questions linger for years in a gray zone. John le Carre had the murkiness right.

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