In sports they call it a head fake, leaning in one direction to throw a defender off-balance before heading in another.
The CIA and Pentagon appear to have employed a variation of that move on Sunday, obscuring the agency’s role in operating a stealth drone that was downed in Iran.
Hours after Iranian news outlets reported that the country had recovered a sophisticated American surveillance plane, U.S. officials responded with an apparently deliberate media misdirect.
CIA press officials declined to comment on the downed drone and reporters were directed toward a statement from the military.
And sure enough, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force seemed to step up to take the blame. “The UAV to which the Iranians are referring may be a U.S. unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan late last week,” ISAF said in a statement.
Mystery solved. The U.S. military operates plenty of drones as part of the war effort in Afghanistan, and this one just veered off course.
But the wording of the ISAF statement was curiously ambiguous, particularly on the question of who was really flying the drone.
Some senior U.S. officials seemed troubled by the attempt at deception from the start. On Sunday, a senior defense official voiced skepticism about the idea that a precious stealth drone would be doing surveillance work in western Afghanistan.
“At the very least, the statement is splitting hairs,” the official said. ”And more likely it is a howler.”
By Monday, the story had changed. The CIA and the Pentagon continued to deny comment, but other U.S. officials confirmed that the drone belonged to the CIA.
Asked why ISAF issued the statement, the CIA declined to comment.
“Accurate information was provided in the statement,” said a senior U.S. official. “There’s no obligation to disclose all the details of sensitive reconnaissance missions. If that’s the test, then we may as well knock on the doors of our adversaries, wherever they may be, and ask them to answer our questions. Of course, we’d get the Heisman.”